In today’s WaPo, Ken Woodward makes the case for inviting President Obama to give the commencement address at his alma mater, Notre Dame. The president is the president, after all, and it’s a longstanding tradition for Notre Dame to invite presidents. Catholicism is no isolated sect that declines to engage the world. Offering the commencement speaker an honorary degree is merely customary, signaling no endorsement of his policy positions. While I’m not entirely convinced by the last point–an honor is an honor–it’s not entirely unreasonable.
The larger issue has to do with the question of invited speakers on Catholic campuses, and the increased tendency in conservative Catholic circles to treat abortion dissenters as pariahs who must neither be seen nor heard. Twenty-five years ago, Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York went to Notre Dame to deliver an address justifying his own opposition to legal restrictions on abortion, including efforts to bar Medicaid from paying for the procedure, even though, as a Catholic, he embraced his church’s opposition to abortion. While Cuomo’s speech did not lack for critics, his going to the nation’s premiere institution of Catholic higher learning to engage the issue was generally regarded as right and proper–in the spirit of scholastic debate that was the glory of the medieval (Catholic) university.
Nowadays, however, not only is the very appearance of a prominent “pro-choice” Catholic on a Catholic campus considered an offense by conservatives, but even the appearance of a prominent Catholic like Douglas Kmiec, who supports the Church’s position on legally proscribing abortion but nevertheless is prepared to justify support for pro-choice politicians on other grounds. What makes this so peculiar is that the Church does not regard opposition to abortion as not an article of faith that Catholics are obliged to believe. Rather, the claim is that the pro-life position derives from the nature of things, and is thus accessible to all humankind through the exercise of natural reason. Under the circumstances, open discussion and debate of the issues at hand ought to be encouraged as a matter of principle on Catholic campuses. Instead, extending invitations to speak not only to prominent Catholics who dissent from “the magisterium” but also to prominent non-Catholics like Obama, is regarded as a scandal.
Kmiec, like a latter-day Luther, has now taken to Dan Gilgoff’s God & Country blog to post a series of questions on abortion and related issues for public debate. They are framed for all comers, but aimed at getting his conservative co-religionists, including the keepers of the magisterium, to start ponying up some real argumentation. Let’s see if they do.