Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Notre Dame, Glendon, and Obama

Tim Sherratt


May 8, 2009

Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon has decided to decline an award from Notre Dame because the university has chosen to honor President Barack Obama at the same commencement exercise. Her decision has provoked a storm of protest among Catholics on both sides. The president supports abortion rights; the US Conference of Catholic Bishops asks Catholic institutions not to honor those who violate basic moral principles.

By issuing the invitation to President Obama to speak and receive an honorary degree, Notre Dame may have expected to combine several good things: to honor the office of president, to preserve a long-standing tradition of having the chief executive give a commencement address, to practice hospitality, and to create a congenial environment for future dialog and debate.

Professor Glendon states two principal reasons for her decision. The first is the request of the Bishops’ conference. Second, Notre Dame justified its invitation to the president in part by claiming that her presence would provide “balance” to his. A third reason amplifies the force of both. As president of the Catholic Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences and as former US ambassador to the Vatican, Glendon may be said to have acted with due respect to the offices she holds or has held.

Although Glendon’s rebuke of Notre Dame is more direct than her disagreement with Obama, the university must have known that the invitation would have placed her in a compromising position. Ironically, the commencement has now been transformed into a political forum, as much by her absence as by her presence. Notre Dame has all but conceded that without her the occasion will be politicized. Once out of the bottle, the political genie cannot be reinserted or the traditional commencement recovered.

All these missteps may represent honest-enough bungling on the university’s part. But they beg a larger question. How does one speak constructively about abortion in American society? It’s a formidable task. Concentrate on abortion alone and your politics may descend into name-calling across a great gulf. Place abortion in the context of other issues that call for respect for life and you risk doing morally perilous math. If one is wrong on abortion but right on the environment, universal health care, human trafficking, and speed limits, when do the scales tip?

Ironically, one can do a lot worse than turn to the Catholic tradition of social and political teaching for some moral clarity. Abstracted from questions of sexual responsibility, stewardship, and care, the abortion question loses every moral dimension except personal choice. Reconnected to these norms, the whole of the moral picture reemerges. The Catholic tradition teaches the created dignity of the person, the irreplaceability of the family, the necessity of individual liberty and responsibility to foster human maturing, and the real, if limited, competence of the state to promote human flourishing.

Thus, the Church can offer solid guidance on the non-equivalence of the practice of abortion alongside other life-related issues. The Church holds abortion to be a moral evil, one readily distinguishable from the moral hazards attending capital punishment or war. It should come as no surprise, then, that the Bishops’ conference asked Catholic institutions not to honor those who violate such fundamental principles. Nor will the conference have overlooked the costs that this request imposes on those institutions.

President Obama and his advisors must share some of the blame for accepting Notre Dame’s invitation in the first place. Now they will pay the price of a public relations crisis featuring a constituency Mr. Obama had some success in reclaiming for the Democrats. If the president wants the kind of serious debate on abortion that Notre Dame could host, that’s something he could initiate when he visits South Bend. He could even invite Professor Glendon to debate him.

—Timothy Sherratt, Professor of Political Studies
    Gordon College

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”