Friday, May 15, 2009

President Obama, Notre Dame, and Abortion

I'm out in the Phoenix area where President Obama gave a commencement address on Wednesday. According to a friend of mine, the only thing anyone was protesting was the 100 degree plus heat.

How different that is that what's been going out at Notre Dame, where I understand from news reports, that a plane has been flying with a banner of a dismembered fetus, and where all sorts of people are asking the university to withdraw his invitation.


Fortunately, most Catholics does the President of the University. Read the poll here.

What I continue to find puzzling is how often issues around abortion become the rallying cry in these kind of situations. Surely, there are OTHER issues that are more important. Surely the opportunity to have the President of the United States speak at your son's and daughter's graduation is an amazing opportunity.

Notre Dame, I hope you follow ASU's example...and you don't have to worry about passing out from the heat.


Cassandra said...

I think it's important to note that in the poll you cite, while most "cultural" Catholic have no problem with Obama speaking at Notre, opinion is much more divided among practicing Catholics.

Also, as Richard Garnett points out in this opinion column in USA Today, the issue isn't so much about whether Catholic universities should engage in dialogue with those who have differing views (they should!), but whether a Catholic university should *honor* (in President Obama's case, a law degree)those who views are diametrically opposed to the Church's teaching on the sanctity of human life. This action by Notre Dame is inconsistent with what a Catholic university ought to represent.

nahrgang said...

I'm not puzzled when I contemplate the death toll from abortion, both in the United States and in the world. This metric alone gives importance to the issue, don't you think?

Pam said...

One thing that disturbs me more and more is the proliferation of op-eds in which commentators state they can't understand how ANYONE could feel or believe differently on an issue, especially an issue such as abortion or gay marriage. I've seen this sentiment stated on this blog, and recently in several op-ed pieces in the Washington Post, and elsewhere. Commentators say not just that people who think differently on these issues are misguided, or plain wrong, but that it is indefensible to oppose social liberals on these points, and that people who believe differently are BAD PEOPLE, who deserved to be suppressed. This is the way tyranny gains a foothold in a society.

Religious people with traditional values (including Democrats like myself) rightly feel that this sort of attitude is the beginning of a concerted effort to oppress and silence them. I can understand after eight years of the Bush administration (which I did not support!), how there would be a backlash of anger and a desire to quiet all non-liberal religious voices. But there is a serious downside for everyone when the opposition is demonized - the political pendulum can always swing and make the demonizers the demonized again! It's always a good idea to make tolerance and respect (if not full acceptance, celebration and promotion) of dissenters' positions the rule (and I agree that both conservatives and liberals need to take this point to heart). This makes society safer for everybody.

I signed the petition opposing the conferral of an honorary law degree on Barack Obama. My husband, a Catholic who voted for Obama, also, despite supporting most of Obamas's policies (outside the life issues) disagrees with the conferral of this honorary degree.

Nobody thinks that Obama shouldn't be invited to speak at Notre Dame. No one is advocating silencing him, disrespecting him or his office of President of the United States, or not giving him an appropraite platform at Notre Dame or any Catholic college.

The objection is to HONORING him when he has made it his specific aim to undermine Catholic values (which he is perfectly entitled to do in a democracy where he has been fairly elected by a majority non-Catholic and dissenting-Catholic population). His avowed policy is refusal to protect (or even seek common ground to accommodate those who believe in) the sanctity of life from conception to natural death.

Catholic institutions are not supposed to HONOR individuals who work against fundamental Catholic values. Why should they?

At my alma mater, the University of Virginia Law School, there was opposition by liberal students to having a federal judge, Harvey Wilkinson, speak because his (conservative) views on torture and gay marriage "made some students uncomfortable." Where's the big liberal outcry over the protest against Judge Wilkinson? I mean, hey, it's a university, and ANYONE should be able to speak, right? Indeed, anyone must, according to critics of the Notre Dame protestors, be ENTITLED to speak regardless of whom it offends or "makes uncomfortable."

It's only when PRO-LIFE Catholic students protest a high-profile speaker that it's WRONG. The protesters at UVa are just standing up for what they believe is right. I suppose that's to be commended at UVa and disparaged at ND.

Not in any way to compare Obama to Hitler (though I saw the Daily Show episode where the debate occurred whether Obama is Hitler or the anti-christ - funny but sad that anyone would even think up this kind of thing even in jest), but I wonder if anyone would criticize a Jewish university for refusing to HONOR someone who denied or downplayed the significance of the Holocaust. Or a historically black college refusing to HONOR someone like David Duke. Do all institutions have an obligation to HONOR individuals who oppose or repudiate their most fundamental values? If so, why? And if not, what's the problem with faithful Catholics opposing HONORING Obama (though not preventing him from speaking and presenting his viewpoint whenever he wants)?

I realize that some individuals feel that abortion is not that big a deal, and to them the response of faithful Catholics opposing a Catholic university HONORING Obama (not just engaging him in dialogue or listening to his perspective and arguments) seems ridiculous.

But many people of good faith, intelligent and decent people, educated people, do believe that abortion is the unjustified killing of innocent people, and that it is harmful to women themselves. Would we not want citizens, and church members, to speak out forcefully if they honestly believe that unjustified innocent human beings are being killed, 1.4 million a year? What would their silence in the face of such an honest belief mean about their consciences?

In the end, this blogger and all those who support Obama's abortion policies can rest assured that Obama will receive his honorary degree and will probably cynically claim this degree as evidence that his work carries the imprimatur of American Catholics. But the integrity, patriotism and conscience of the protestors should not be questioned just because abortion proponents disagree with their viewpoint.

Anonymous said...

Rev. Haffner,

Imagine if the President was working to pass a law that would make it legal for mothers to kill their children up to the age of 5. And that 4,000 children would be killed *every* day because it is now legal.

Would you not start protesting? Would you not make a big deal about it? Would the economy, torture, and *everything* not take a back-seat to this horrendous crime?

As Catholics, we believe life - true, human life like yours or mine - begins at conception, not at birth. Thus, to us, not only is there a law that permits children to be killed by their mothers but the President is pushing for Federal Funds to fund it!

Now that you see my perspective, we can both agree that you and I have different answers as to when life starts. I know that you cannot make a rationale answer of life starts at "birth" as you could, for example, give birth to a baby 5 months into pregnancy and he will survive and lead a normal life. How about the day before that day? Or the previous one? Or how about during the 5th week when the heart starts to pump? Where do you draw the line? Just think about that...

God Bless.

Cassandra said... knowledge of html isn't so great! Here's the link I was referring to:

George said...

A central part of the educational mission of any college or university is the entertainment of diverse and contradictory views. If a catholic university decides to select speakers based on a strict interpretation of church doctrine then that is their privilege.

Challenging beliefs and ideas about the start of biological and spiritual life could be a part of any catholic university curriculum and could lead to a greater understanding of these issues from different perspectives. Adopting a rigid position and then subverting the discussion to a test of compliance degrades the discussion and sheds no light on the common interests and values that are shared among persons with diverse views.

U of ND supporters should be proud that their institution has invited Obama to speak at the commencement. He has achieved greatness in his own time and has a message that the students and faculty would do well to hear.

Of course there are institutions that would shy away from an invitation such as this and would avoid the tough discussions. No intrusive ideas will disturb the slumber of the intellect at these schools.

Pam said...

George wrote:

"Challenging beliefs and ideas about the start of biological and spiritual life could be a part of any catholic university curriculum and could lead to a greater understanding of these issues from different perspectives. Adopting a rigid position and then subverting the discussion to a test of compliance degrades the discussion and sheds no light on the common interests and values that are shared among persons with diverse views."

George, this kind of dialogue about the start of biological and spiritual life DOES occur at Notre Dame, at Georgetown, and at all Catholic colleges. In fact, I would argue that the religious or Catholic position that life begins at conception is actually downplayed or avoided at most SECULAR universities, where viewpoint discrimination against conservative ideas (and I am a pro-life Democrat here so I am not a right-wing conservative accusing anyone of this - I am a former administrator at the University of Michigan Law School, and I speak from experience that the life-begins-at-conception argument was given far shorter shrift there than the more popular relativist/ utilitarian view of inconvenient life being disposable view.)

The question here is not one of refusing to hear or consider Obama's perspectives - they are heard and considered even at much more religious schools than ND.

The question is one of HONORING an individual whose views (however much consideration and understanding they may - in fact they do - deserve) contravene the institution's fundamental values.

Again, no one is aguing against giving Obama a platform - it's the HONORARY DEGREE suggesting support for his policies that is opposed.

Opponents of Obama's receiving an honorary degree from ND are not, as many would like to paint them, ignorant ideologues who don't want to hear anything they disagree with. Catholic college students are exposed to a greater diversity of ideas than secular students, as the religious perspective is rarely fully and fairly presented in them (based on my experience attending all public universities and working in one). Religious people, especially Catholics, who have a long and distinguished tradition of serious intellectual endeavor, are not against learning or debate with the "other side."

In my experience, it's the "other side" who doesn't want to hear the religious view fully and fairly presented.

Debra W. Haffner said...

Cassandra and Pam, always good to see you here. The commentary I have seen has all been about the President being invited to speak at all...not just whether he should receive an honorary degree. Actually ASU didn't give him an honorary doctorate either because according to the papers they didn't think his body of work was complete. (I don't know, being elected President feels pretty complete to me...guess there's not much hope I'll be getting one...!) I think the doctorate from the university is much more to anonymous, please check out our Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Abortion as a Moral Decision. I do believe that life is sacred and yes, we have differences about at what point the fetus has greater rights than the woman who is carring it...but as I've written here many times it is because life is so precious that surely we can all agree that it not be created to John and anonymous, I hope you are doing all you can to support sexuality education and access to all safe and legal methods of birth control.

George said...

How many litmus tests are applied to other recipients of honorary degrees? Does U of ND vet all potential recipients with adherence to church doctrine? If variations are allowed, what is considered acceptable?

Claiming to know how everything works according to religious belief and adopting an absolutist position based on these beliefs is an individual privilege and not a viable basis for public policy.

Perceiving Obama's positions as an attack on one religion or another is paranoia. This is a secular society with a wide diversity of beliefs some of which could be judged extremist. Give the man credit for lifting policy out of the middle ages and having the courage to discuss it in public.

LiturgyGeek said...

(Totally off-topic, but in response to your post on my blog, it was TOTALLY meant as a compliment, and I serve a small UCC church in SW Iowa, as well as working for an affiliate of a national organization that promotes healthy sexuality through education, advocacy and health services. You're kind of my she-ro!)

Pam said...

I just read the text of Obama's speech and thought it was excellent in many ways. I especially liked:

"As I considered the controversy surrounding my visit here, I was reminded of an encounter I had during my Senate campaign, one that I describe in a book I wrote called The Audacity of Hope. A few days after I won the Democratic nomination, I received an email from a doctor who told me that while he voted for me in the primary, he had a serious concern that might prevent him from voting for me in the general election. He described himself as a Christian who was strongly pro-life, but that's not what was preventing him from voting for me.

What bothered the doctor was an entry that my campaign staff had posted on my website - an entry that said I would fight "right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman's right to choose." The doctor said that he had assumed I was a reasonable person, but that if I truly believed that every pro-life individual was simply an ideologue who wanted to inflict suffering on women, then I was not very reasonable. He wrote, "I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words."

Fair-minded words.

After I read the doctor's letter, I wrote back to him and thanked him. I didn't change my position, but I did tell my staff to change the words on my website. And I said a prayer that night that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me. Because when we do that - when we open our hearts and our minds to those who may not think like we do or believe what we do - that's when we discover at least the possibility of common ground.


Understand - I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. No matter how much we may want to fudge it - indeed, while we know that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory - the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable. Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature.

Open hearts. Open minds. Fair-minded words."

I honestly hope that individuals on both "sides" of the abortion debate can take Obama's words to heart. Especially when we start to say, "I can't imgaine how ANYONE could believe x, y or z...."

Of course it's easy for pro-lifers to find examples of pro-choicers who don't extend fair-mindedness or a presumption of good intention, and it's easy for pro-choicers to find example of pro-lifers who don't do this.

Are we going to be able to recognize lack of fair-mindedness within our own camps?

I hope so. I honestly try, and I'm certainly willing to continue trying.

nahrgang said...

George - As an ND alumnus, I can assure you that the entertainment of diverse and contradictory views has been and continues to be alive at Notre Dame. As multiple bishops have pointed out since the outset of this invitation, this is not about academic freedom. This is about the integrity and coherency of Catholic teaching, something outside the purview of your standard secular American university.

Debra - I find your use of the term "nuanced" interesting, would you care to elaborate...I support sexuality education consonant with the teachings of the RCC, and I do not support the use of contraception on religious and moral grounds.

I was impressed with Obama's speech and agree with the importance to have a civilized dialogue. Having said that, I see no reason to doubt that his stance on abortion has deviated from what he expressed during his speech to Planned Parenthood in July of '07. Until it does, I'll be working and praying against his allies in CfC, NARAL and PP.