Monday, April 27, 2009

Speeches and Honors at Catholic Universities

[ Note: I apologize in advance for the length of this, but there is much to say. I hope the length will not discourage you from stating your thoughts]

In 2004, the USCCB released a document entitled Catholics in Political Life , in which they taught "The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions."

When Notre Dame announced the President Obama would be their commencement speaker this year and would receive an honorary law degree, my reaction was similar to Policratus'. I stated that I believe dialogue is important. We must not demonize or alienate ourselves from our interlocutors, especially those in positions of power and those who want the same results as we do - in this case, a reduction in abortions - simply because their means of achieving said reduction differs, albeit drastically and egregiously, from our means. However, I stated that I thought that Notre Dame was going too far in honoring Obama. I could not recall Jesus honoring "sinners." At the time I did not have the bishops' statement quoted above in mind. However, it now seems an accurate reflection of my intuitions.

Upon expressing my thoughts to a few wise and trusted Catholic friends, I was advised that Jesus certainly honored sinners. He honored Zaccheus the tax collector with His presence. The whole Jewish/Middle Eastern culture was based upon "honor." Pilch apparently exemplifies this well. I was told that Jesus does honor the Pharisees for what they teach, but not how they act. Can we not honor Obama's achievements while challenging his problematic views? If we wish to change the culture we must dialogue with the culture. We must be in the world but not of it. We must hate the sin and love the sinner. We cannot simply blackball all pro-choice politicians from Catholic institutions. This is what I was told. I saw much truth in it. But I was not comfortable, not at peace with it.

Since then my own Archbishop Hughes has weighed in on the Obama-ND situation. He writes:

We cannot compromise our Church's clear and unflagging opposition to abortion and embryonic stem cell research by providing honors and a platform for those who deny the humanity and dignity of the most frail creature in our midst.... I respect the President of the United States. I pray for him. As Catholics we need to enter into civil debate with him on the fundamental issues on which we disagree. We work with him on those issues with which we agree. But we do not supply a platform or grant an honor to someone who not only is so wrong on such a fundamental issue but is aggressively pursuing policies which exclude the human rights of the unborn.

Shortly thereafter Xavier University's plans to honor Donna Brazile at their commencement became public. She is the first African American to have directed a presidential campaign, is Catholic, and has done much for the rights and respect of African Americans. She is also pro-choice and has stated as much publicly. Hughes chose to write to the president of XULA as well as to boycott their commencement, which he usually attends. To Dr. Francis, President of XULA, Hughes writes :
I recognize that Ms. Brazile is a Catholic Louisiana native who has worked effectively in service to the poor and African Americans in particular. However, her public statements on the abortion issue are not in keeping with Catholic moral teaching. She has supported President Obama’s decision to reverse the Mexico City policy allowing federal funds to organizations that provide abortions overseas by saying that this policy will “save lives.” She has also relativized the importance of the fundamental life issues on national television suggesting that there are more important things for the American people to discuss than abortion. She has supported and worked for the election of candidates who support contraceptive practices and abortion on the basis that this stance is pro-woman.

Additionally Hughes released the following statement entitled Recognition of Public Figures by Catholic Institutions , apparently in response to ...shall we say "social-justice" Catholics. In it he explains:
We recognize that abortion and embryonic stem cell research are not the only “life issues” of concern for the Catholic Church. Some point out that capital
punishment is also rejected by the Catholic Church and suggest that a proponent of it should be denied similar recognition.
It is important to distinguish an absolute moral principle from one that is subject to different applications according to varying conditions or circumstances. Direct abortion is always wrong, no matter what the circumstances. Capital punishment is accepted in the Church as one way in which innocent life can be protected. Over the years, as viable alternatives such as life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, have become more possible, the need for recourse to this has become
less necessary. This is what has led the Pope and Bishops to recommend that as a society we move away from it. It is not in itself wrong, if the crime is heinous, people are threatened and there is no alternative available.

Meanwhile, Fr. Louis Arceneaux, c.m. of Pax Christi has written a letter to Archbishop Hughes for apparent inconsistencies. I cannot find a link to the letter, which was emailed to me, therefore I shall post it in its entirety. It is not too long.

Dear Archbishop Hughes:
I am writing you regarding your decisions and public declarations regarding President Obama and Donna Brazile, receiving honorary degrees at Catholic universities. Let me be clear. I am as opposed to abortion as you are. I long for the day when few, if any, women and men choose to have abortions. Where you and I disagree is our approach to getting there.
For example, I do not think that your publicly stating that you will not attend Xavier’s graduation because someone who is being given an honorary degree and will speak at the graduation is pro-choice is going to help the cause of reducing and eliminating abortion. In my opinion, all you are doing is giving people who agree with your approach a reason to boast. You are also antagonizing many other people who might be open to dialogueabout ways to reduce abortions in the country. Did you read what Sarah Comiskey gave as an explanation for the reason President Obama was allowed to attend and speak at the Al Smith dinner in New York? She is quoted as saying “They are recognized as candidates, but not honored.” Do you not agree that this is yet another example of a distinction without
a difference, so often used as an explanation, that most people will not find helpful?
I think that there are ways that you and other American bishops would better promote your goals. Why could you not have spoken positively about all the good that President Obama has done already and all the Catholic social values he shares with us and urge him to speak out more often on his specific proposals to reduce the number of abortions in the country since we are opposed to any abortions. You could have taken the same approach with Donna Brazile. I think that kind of approach will be more helpful in reducing the number of abortions than blanket statements against universities and politicians. There can be and ought to be a different way to deal with this issue in the political arena than the way we deal with it in Catholic schools and churches.
I also think you and other Catholic bishops would get a more positive response and greater respect if you spoke out more consistently for the human life and dignity of all persons. These distinctions that are made about “just wars” and the permissibility of the death penalty do not help the full pro-life cause of our Church. When I speak of pro-life in retreats and parish missions, I make it clear that we need to be for the life and dignity of every human being from conception to death. I have been criticized by a minority for that stand, and yet I truly believe it is the position we ought to take as true followers of Jesus Christ, despite the distinctions that Catholic theology has made over the years. Wouldn’t you agree that Jesus Christ would not support war the way it is waged today, not with bows and arrows, but with bombs that destroy innocent men, women and children. Don’t you also think that He would not support the death
penalty when we can incarcerate criminals for life, without parole, if they are found guilty of heinous crimes? And yet, so many so-called “pro-life” Catholics and evangelicals hold that Jesus Christ would support modern warfare and the death penalty, including the governor of Louisiana, whom you will honor by your presence at the Loyola University graduation.
My point is that the narrow “pro-life” focus on the unborn is probably detrimental to the very cause of reducing and eliminating abortions and that we are not doing a very good job of helping Catholics to be truly pro-life from conception to the grave.
As we used to say in the seminary, those are my thoughts on the subject. I would be happy to have a fuller discussion with you on these thoughts.
Sincerely yours in St. Vincent DePaul,
Louis Arceneaux, c.m.

So, locally, Archbishop Hughes is boycotting Xavier's graduation because the university is inviting and honoring a Catholic who wholeheartedly supports and advocates for the Democratic Party Platform on abortion and ESCR, which are contrary to Catholic teachings. On the other hand, he is apparently not boycotting Loyola's graduation, although it is inviting and honoring Bobby Jindal, a Catholic and the Governor of Louisiana who has advocated for and signed legislation enacting the death penalty or chemical castration for child rapists. The Archbishop has, rightly I think, exhibited the difference between abortion/ESCR and captial punishment. However, in my understanding, there is no acceptable prudential reason which Jindal can cite in defense of his stance. That abortion and ESCR are intrinsically evil tells us that they can never be justified. Similarly, capital punishment cannot be justified in our circumstances, even if it is not intrinsically evil. Therefore, it is not clear to me why Archbishop Hughes must boycott Brazile but not Jindal. Certainly more are killed through abortion and ESCR than capital punishment, but if we are to propose a consistent ethic of life to this culture of death, can we afford to compromise?

The issue has been further complicated by Mary Ann Glendon , who is currently the first female President of the Roman Catholic Church's official Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, and is has been nominated for Notre Dame's prestigious Laetare Medal. Despite being counseled by some of the US bishops, including Notre Dame's own Bishop D'Arcy who has not at all approved of Obama's invitation, to accept the award and attend the graduation, she has decided to reject the award and abstain from attending. This seems to be a complex and divisive issue as is evidenced by reading the comments on the previously linked post.

Several questions arise from all this, which I think are preliminary to any sound judgment on the matters as hand. I ask for your insight and discussion on these preliminary questions.

1. What is the role of Catholic universities in dialoging with and forming the culture?
2. How can we properly bear witness to a culture of life, which presupposes a consistent ethic of life, without being consistent?
3. What is the role of scandal in this? Would American Catholics be scandalized by Obama's presence at ND? By the Bishops' presence at the commencement? By Hughes' presence at Xavier? Should Catholics be more
scandalized than are likely to be by Jindal's presence at Loyola? Why was Obama's presence and honor at Xavier in 2007 not worthy of Hughes' boycott? Did he slip under the radar? Was Senator Obama somehow less important then than Brazile is now?
4. How are we to dialogue with the culture while being in the world, without compromising ourselves or our own institutions, without being of the world? On the personal level this is difficult enough; how can we do it on the institutional level when so many of our Catholic institutions are becoming more and more secular and less Catholic?


Henry Karlson said...


Some of my thoughts, in a rambling fashion, some of which I've seen other places, some I do not think I have. I know my position isn't popular in the blogosphere right now, but I am trying to look at it in a personalist sense, and what our obligation as Christians to others actually is.

The 2004 document which is consistently being quoted, imo, has a context which many forget, when it says "which would suggest..." that is, the honors which are not to be given are those which would suggest honoring evil deeds. In the way President Obama is being honored for the sake of his office (as has been the practice for decades now, and is also the practice with the Vatican, France and the Lateran, even when they are pro-choice), I do not think President Obama is being honored in such a way as to suggest support for his unCatholic policies. If we are to show him no honor, it would of course mean we would give no dignity to him as a person, and also, no dignity to him in his office -- yet do we not do that every time we pray for him in our liturgies (it's a big deal, for example, that we Byzantines pray for the Pope; it's one of the things which shows we honor him, as compared to the Orthodox)? But I fear this "do not honor" is being broadened (by some), and that is a dangerous position.

Can you imagine how Church history would be now, if this precedent was established say, in 400 AD? Many who were led in to the Church I doubt would have been --my favorite example is always St Vladimir of Rus, who, before his conversion, was not the kind of person you wanted as an enemy. But there can be many other examples. Even St Thomas More with Henry VIII shows that, despite Henry's actions, Thomas was more than willing to give honors to Henry. Even in modern times, look to how Pope John Paul II was criticized by some for his trip to Cuba, and yet -- look at the results. Looking to history I think shows us how this is a much lesser event than many people are making it to be (and I think people from many political spectrums love it being in the news, because they can all do their talking points; but historian in me just looks at this and thinks it is a bunch of talk over very little, though I engage it, because I am trying to look at broader issues than I think others are). I fear that the bastions which Hans Urs von Balthasar wanted to be razed are being put back up, and the response of some will only harden the hearts of people like President Obama. Human dignity and dignity of the office needs to be kept in place and not forgotten; I fear for some (not you, of course) it is all or nothing. The dualism in such an approach is obvious.

V said...

I like what HenryKarlson said.

I don't get one thing from your post. How is killing someone "not intrinsically evil"? In one of the quotes it said of the death penalty, "It is not in itself wrong, if the crime is heinous, people are threatened and there is no alternative available."

Justifying the death penalty with these words sounds just like some people's justification for abortion. Catholics better get their heads on straight.

1. What is the role of Catholic universities in dialoging with and forming the culture?
They should be places where people can bring up ideas and be open about them, while always pointing to heaven.

2. How can we properly bear witness to a culture of life, which presupposes a consistent ethic of life, without being consistent?
In our political spectrum, we are forced to choose between the completely pro-life third party which will make no political impact nationally or the two main parties who are inconsistent in their policies.
The way to actually be consistent, no matter who one votes for would be to work at the pregnancy clinic and council young women who are thinking of abortion, and to try to influence congresspeople to take a stand against the death penalty and war. To put your belief into action is what Christ wanted, not to say we love our neighbor but to love them though word and deed.

3. What is the role of scandal in this? I don't really care what happens either way, I bet a bunch of other people don't care either, it will be the polar opposites of opinion who care and who make this a rallying cry for more divisive action.
Would American Catholics be scandalized by Obama's presence at ND? Not me.
By the Bishops' presence at the commencement? He should go if he knows anyone and wants to support the students, that's who is really getting honored.
By Hughes' presence at Xavier? ditto.
Should Catholics be more scandalized than are likely to be by Jindal's presence at Loyola? probably, but most won't care either way.
Why was Obama's presence and honor at Xavier in 2007 not worthy of Hughes' boycott? He wasn't the president then, if Hughes wants to boycott him now, maybe Obama said something bad at that graduation that was worthy of boycott, maybe we can get the transcripts and look at them...
Did he slip under the radar? Was Senator Obama somehow less important then than Brazile is now?

4. How are we to dialogue with the culture while being in the world, without compromising ourselves or our own institutions, without being of the world? On the personal level this is difficult enough; how can we do it on the institutional level when so many of our Catholic institutions are becoming more and more secular and less Catholic?
If Catholics acted Catholic then everyone would be Catholic, but they don't. We can't account for everyone else, only ourselves. In each misconception we encounter in a brother, we should try to humbly correct their understanding. If they listen then good, but if they don't, shake the dust from your sandals and move on.

JB said...


Thanks for your response. I like your reasoning, but I'm still not entirely comfortable with it. I think that is partially due to some sort of cognitive dissonance: I'd like to give the bishops, or at least my bishop, the benefit of the doubt. Thus, I find myself waffling on the issue.
I agree that placing this within a larger historical context minimizes its significance, while allowing to speak to larger trends in the way the Church in America is choosing to dialogue with society and gov't.

What are the implications of a potential situation in which a majority (or vocal minority) of our bishops are choosing to lead us in engaging society in an overly-politicized or otherwize narrow-minded manner?

JB said...


I'm glad your sharing your thoughts. I enjoy them :)

Regarding the death penalty: As a fellow JPII Catholic I agree with you, but we need to keep the historical context in mind. Much of Church history has viewed it...permissively, so it is understandable, especially for Catholics of previous generations, to see it differently than we do.

Regarding consistency: I agree. Too many people currently put too much weight on voting too little weight on witnessing. I believe Peter Maurin said something like the following: the early Christian loved the poor with self-sacrificial charity, and the pagans said "see great their love is." Today we nationalize charity into welfare and the non-Christians say " See how they pass the buck." Until Christians start witnessing to the Love of Christ, little will change.

I look forward to more conversations (with both of you) in person in the not too distant future :-)

Br. Thomas, OP said...

It's an interesting question about the seemingly contradictory actions by the Archbishop concerning Obama's presence at Xavier in 2006 and Brazile's in 2009. But, I think it's more of a distraction than an argument. Any number of things could be the truth in this case: it may simply be that he (the Archbishop) did not properly consider these things in 2006 (I know, shocking that a bishop could make a mistake). For good or bad, human persons are not machines, they do not always react the same in all situations, they do not always hold the same positions throughout their life, nor even the same year, often even in the same day. Nonetheless, perhaps it is fair to call the Archbishop out on what here looks like hypocrisy.

In response to the comment made by someone that the words of the Bishops' document where it states "which would suggest..." implies that they only intend certain kinds of honors be denied:

I want to point out that the Bishops' document was written by the bishops. I know, seems silly to say. But, take a look at the document and who was involved in writing it. The three bishops named on the site where the document appears at the USCCB have each in some way (two more outspokenly than the other) disapproved of the invite and the honors. Around 25% of United States bishops have spoken out against this.

Now, my argument is emphatically NOT this: The bishops say it so it is logically true and indisputable.

My argument IS, however, this: there's no point in trying to "interpret" the document one way when the actions and words of its authors demonstrate otherwise.

Whether the bishops are right or not about this... is one question I suppose can be legitimately asked. But it doesn't seem like a good idea to exegete the document.

Now, I do agree to a certain extent with those who say they "don't see the big deal" about all of this. If others had not done the initial work of being scandalized and protesting, I would probably not have said much of anything about it. But, and I recognize this is my own personal hang-up, I am more and more concerned by the lengths people will go to so that they do not appear radical to others who might disagree with them.

We can talk about how the early Christians loved one another and their enemies, but let's make a distinction, for the sake of honesty and history:
Christians in the early Church also corrected and rebuked one another, and under the direction of St. Paul, they did not associate with those who would lead them astray.

They also took on difficult topics like... burning incense in honor, religio, to/of the emperor. They prayed for him in their own ceremonies, but they also went to the lions instead of burning a pinch of incense to him in the imperial cultic worship. Refusal to do this was an act of treason. It was not, in the eyes of the Romans, about the Christians' weird religion, it was about their refusal to SUPPORT THE EMPEROR--i.e., their refusal was unpatriotic.

There... that's it for now.

JB said...

Bro T OP,

Thanks for the response and thoughts. It is a very interesting situation. I really can't decide of where I fall. Maybe I'm just afraid of being "wrong." ;-)

One issue which is tangential to this which concerns me greatly is how we are respond to differing or contradictory statements from different bishops. Am I to "submit" to Hughes regardless? What if I disagree with him and find that I fall more in line with another bishop, say Chaput?

There are important ecclesiological implications for these questions and for this situation. While it is somewhat frivolous on the surface, I think it reflect troubling trends for the Church in America.

Br. Thomas, OP said...


As for preferring one bishop over another, here's my take:

There were probably those times when we would have rather been someone else's son when we were kids... "Johnny's Mom lets him do X, but mine won't."

I suppose you could always move to Colorado. ;-)

The bishop is the head of his own diocese and no other bishop (including the USCCB) may substitute for his authority [re: Canon 455].
So, the matter at Notre Dame is, it seems to me, a "disagreement" between the University administration and their local bishop.

Whether 60 or 2 bishops weigh in on the matter... when the rubber hits the road, who should your son obey, his parents or someone else's?

I know that you know this, but it doesn't hurt saying it anyway: we don't get to choose everything in life.