The Entrance Into Jerusalem

Editorial: President Obama, Notre Dame, and a Dialogue That Witnesses: A Question for Father Jenkins

David L. Schindler

“The burden of ‘witness’ rightly understood 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.”

(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 regard.

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 understood.

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 Obama.

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.”

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