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President Obama, Notre Dame, and a Dialogue That Witnesses: A Question for Father Jenkins
by David L. Schindler
Communio: International Catholic Review 36, no. 1 (Spring 2009). Printable version here (PDF).
(1) In its invitation to President Obama, Notre Dame started a controversy it surely could
have anticipated would exacerbate divisions among Catholics in America. The controversy was
not necessary: it did not come to, but was brought about by, the university. To say that the
university went ahead with the invitation simply for reasons of prestige would be reductive. On
the contrary, Father Jenkins stressed President Obama’s achievements regarding the economy,
two wars and health care, immigration and education reform, and racial prejudice, even as he
distanced the university from support of Obama’s positions regarding “the protection of human
life, including abortion and embryonic stem-cell research.”
The primary reason for the invitation was thus to honor Obama, America’s first African-
American president, while using the event also as an opportunity for “further positive
engagement” and “dialogue” regarding differences in the “life” issues.
My comment focuses on the nature of the dialogue implied by Father Jenkins’s invitation, in
light of the reasons offered by him.
Father Jenkins says his expression of personal disagreement with President Obama regarding
abortion and embryonic stem-cell research demonstrates that the honor extended does not
“suggest support” for all of the latter’s actions. We can grant that Father Jenkins indeed does not
support all of the President’s actions. The relevant question, however, is whether an honorary
degree carries a distinct meaning of its own, and what Notre Dame’s invitation implies in this
An honorary law degree bestowed on a solemn occasion such as a commencement ceremony
obviously is meant to honor someone in the name of the university, hence in the name of the
ends of education for which the university stands. Father Jenkins’s invitation thus cannot but
bear implications–however unintended–with respect to how he thinks these ends are to be
The pertinent fact is that, while recognizing Obama’s achievements and also registering
disagreement with respect to what he judges to be Obama’s deficits regarding protection of
human life, Father Jenkins went forward with the invitation. This fact itself testifies, even if not
altogether deliberately, to a proportionate weighting of the content of these achievements and
deficits in relation to the purpose of Notre Dame as a Catholic institution of higher education.
(2) Father Jenkins points toward dialogue as the mediating principle in this weighting. He
insists that dialogue on the occasion of the President’s commencement address and degree award
would provide adequate testimony to his own personal, and the university’s institutional,
disagreement with Obama’s views. On this occasion, the University of Notre Dame, through
Father Jenkins, would stress its strong opposition to abortion and embryonic stem-cell research,
and in so doing show that its weighting of social-moral issues differed from that of President
The problem is that Father Jenkins’s appeal to dialogue here overlooks the crucial point: that
his invitation to the President already helps define the basic terms and horizon of the intended
dialogue. The fact of the invitation itself begins a conversation the terms of which already reflect
a proportional ordering of social-moral issues much like that of the President himself.
Not surprisingly, President Obama took the occasion of his commencement address to clarify
the nature of this proportional ordering. According to the President, there exists a “seamless
garment” of issues that weaves into a “consistent ethic of life,” and this consistent ethic entails
that we can judge the significance of any one social-moral issue only as proportionately related
to the spectrum of other social-moral issues. Or at any rate we must do so insofar as we would
propose a particular moral position for consideration in the public domain. Only in this way do
we arrive at the “common ground” necessary for reasonable human communication. (As
President Obama emphasized, we need “open hearts, open minds, and fair-minded words,”
noting that this had already led in his case not to changing his position but to telling “my staff to
change the words on my Web site.”)
Now one does not need to call into question the saintliness of the late Cardinal Joseph
Bernardin, whose name President Obama invokes, in questioning how the rhetoric of a “seamless
garment” of human-ethical issues has often been employed to set “proportionalist” terms and
limits for reasonable dialogue in moral matters. Nor, in criticizing a “proportionalist” rendering
of a “consistent ethic,” should one deny that all ethical issues have to be engaged as
comprehensively as possible.
A “seamless garment” of moral issues, however, can be rightly understood only in terms of
the venerable Catholic principle of analogy. According to analogy, the community among these
issues exists only simultaneously with what are always their real – even radical – differences
(maior dissimilitudo). It is the intrinsic nature of each moral issue that determines the
significance of its difference from the others. Thus rudeness and the taking of innocent life are
both intrinsically wrong and should both be opposed, but only coincident with recognizing the
radical disproportion within the “proportion” implicit in their both being wrong.
The question I wish to pose to Father Jenkins in this context is simply whether there exists
any unconditional social-moral good whose gravity is such that its defense would entail a
dialogue different from that defended by President Obama–a dialogue, for example, inclusive of
the need for what may be termed “witness.”
Note that “witness” here is not conceived as a counter to reason but rather as the fullest
realization of reason. The burden of witness rightly understood, in other words, is not that one is
unwilling to dialogue with another, but that the dialogue called for in given cases demands
clarity from the outset regarding the gravity of what is at stake.
A grave unconditional moral good can be properly defended only with the gesture of one’s
whole being and in the flesh, and only with a reason exercised from inside this more
Indeed, it is reason intrinsically tied to witness in this sense that is the raison d’etre of any
adequately conceived university, especially a Catholic university and especially in our time.
What I mean to suggest, then, is that the most consistently human and Catholic way of
dialoguing in the present case would have been for Notre Dame precisely not to have invited
President Obama, and then if necessary to have provided the pertinent people with a patient
explanation of the reasons for the university’s embodied-symbolic witness (cf. 1 Peter 15) on
behalf of what it wished to uphold as an unconditional moral good.
Father Jenkins to be sure would want to affirm unconditional moral goods, and it is not at all
my intention to deny this. The point is not that he explicitly espouses a “proportionalist” view of
the good–he does not–, but that the kind of dialogue presupposed in the fact of Notre Dame’s
inviting and officially honoring President Obama carries just such a “proportionalist” view.
(3) As indicated, President Obama invokes the idea of a “common ground” necessary for
genuine dialogue. But the idea of “common ground,” rightly understood, has its roots in the
common nature shared by human beings. Inscribed in the heart of every man is a desire for the
good, and this desire implies recognition of the intrinsic good of life in its originally given
innocence. No appeal to a ground common to dialogue partners – however deeply divided these
partners may be in their explicit views on important issues – can reasonably ignore this deeper
common nature, and this common restlessness for what is transcendently good, which all human
beings share inside their differences.
A rightly conceived appeal to a “common ground,” in other words, involves bringing to light
what lies naturally in the depths of every human being, as a necessary condition for realizing an
authentic common reasonableness.
Dialogue and “common ground” as conceived in the dominant culture, in contrast, are not
ordered toward unconditional but only proportionalist “truth.” Dialogue tends of its proper logic
only toward ever-more dialogue, without inner dynamic for (possible) conversion to or
termination in an unconditional good making an intrinsic demand on all those participating in
conversation. Indeed, in the present cultural circumstances, dialogue paradoxically becomes the
only good that one cannot reasonably question, and thus the only unconditional good.
The problem with Notre Dame’s decision is that it evidences no awareness of a notion of
dialogue or common ground different from that of the dominant culture.
(4) We stand now at a time when we can take a long look back at the events of the twentieth
century, with its massively brutal taking of innocent human life. We can look back, knowing that
we now have at our disposal ever-greater technological capacity for ever-more subtle forms of
brutality, especially with respect to human life in its weakest and most vulnerable beginnings.
The lesson of this past century is clear: there are unconditional moral goods whose gravity is
such that only a dialogue rooted in witness with one’s whole being, in the flesh, suffices.
I do not mean the comparison here to be inflammatory. I nevertheless do mean to ask quite
literally whether there is not resident in America’s dominant liberal culture a peculiar tendency
toward a “compassionate” and “subtle” violence driven by techno-science that rivals the worst
evils of history. “Compassionate”: because the violence perpetrated is expressly in the interests
of alleviating someone’s suffering–to be sure always someone other than the one being
terminated. “Subtle”: because the violence perpetrated is characteristically against those who
cannot exercise the agency of self necessary to claim rights on his or her own behalf–against
embryonic human beings, for example, who of their very nature are always “silent” and always
And so, again, my question to Father Jenkins: if not this homicidal instrumentalism against
the weakest and most vulnerable, then what other intrinsic moral evil, might call for a dialogue
not circumscribed by the proportionalism of the dominant culture?
To be sure, addressing the issue raised here is a responsibility scarcely unique to Notre Dame.
These are not ordinary times, however, and the University of Notre Dame is not an ordinary
institution. The university plays an important role in articulating the reasonable nature of
Catholic higher education, not to mention the cultural meaning of Catholicism in America. And
it articulates these in a singularly solemn way in its awarding of honorary degrees on the
occasion of its commencement.
The unfortunate effect of the university’s decision on this occasion is that it leaves the
broader culture’s proportionalist reason and dialogue fully intact, and indeed reinforces these
within the Catholic community.
What the university could and should have done is use the occasion instead to embrace a
deeper kind of dialogue and to witness more profoundly in the flesh, on behalf of the weakest of
the weak whose inherent dignity we all wish to affirm unconditionally.
David L. Schindler
Editor, Communio: International Catholic Review
Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family
at The Catholic University of America
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