Friday, May 15, 2009

Notre Dame & Obama

Tibor R. Machan

There appears to be a widespread belief among Roman Catholics that so called catholic schools--including universities--owe some kind of strong allegiance to the doctrines of the church. But this is contradicted by numerous facts.

At Notre Dame, for example, quite a few professors, including some in the department of philosophy, do not even believe in God, let alone embrace the RC version of religious faith. And that would appear to be something far more objectionable to the faithful than giving a one time honorary degree to a president who, yes, holds some views that are contrary to at least a certain version of church doctrine but who on other matters may well be following the church's philosophy.

President Obama supports stem cell research, for example, which is considered by some Roman Catholics as morally wrong (although even on this there is no unanimity within the church), and he is also pro-choice on the abortion issue, believing, from what I understand, that until after about the 23rd week of pregnancy no human being has come into existence and so abortion up to that point, which kills the fetus, doesn't count as homicide, let alone murder. Indeed, both these positions contradict the standard Roman Catholic view, although whether the faithful should hold those views because they are church doctrine and part of the faith or because that is the correct biological view of the development of the human organism is not clear to me. (I know many Roman Catholics, some who teach at Roman Catholics Universities, and they are by no means in full agreement on this matter.)

What then is one to make of this brouhaha if anything at all? (Some controversies are what someone I knew forty five years ago called shamtroversies, that is, phony and made up just to have something to beef about!)

In the community of higher education, especially at post graduate centers, the tradition has developed that so long as one has earned one's academic credentials honestly, has gone through the credentialing process--earned his or her degrees fair and square--one is eligible to teach at the university level in the field of one's degrees. Whatever is looked at to certify someone is not supposed to include one's viewpoint--is one a socialist or communist or libertarian or republican, for example, even in such normatively pregnant fields such as political science, philosophy, or history. Even though this is a commonly professed ideal but not always fully followed, no university department will fess up to diverging from it (apart from certain out and out proselytizing institutions, such as Liberty University, where it is understood by everyone that a certain party line is being handed to students and no genuine academic inquiry is taking place).

But universities aren't only concerned with academic integrity and practice. They are parts of communities and very much rely on the support of alumni and others and in the matter of selecting commencement speakers and recipients of honorary degrees, the criteria aren't just academic or only barely so. One can receive an honorary doctorate without having any academic background in the field. And most often the granting of such honorary degrees is a matter of calling attention to the university, letting the world know that such and such a famous person regards it an honor to receive the degree there.

Yet there is the other side of the coin, too. By granting the degree, an institution is saying out loud, for everyone to notice, that it regards the recipient worthy of the honor being granted. Or, less naively, that with the granting of the honor one is hoping to gain favor with certain wealthy potential donors. And in that respect the criteria are varied and although on some scale a recipient may not measure up, on another he or she could do so swimmingly.

In this instance President Obama's political-economic outlook, his being such an avid supporter of social democracy and the welfare state--especially on the matter of government interference with the economy in support of fairness and equality--may very well over-ride any Roman Catholic preference for someone who is in full accord with the church's position on when a human being begins its life, etc.

So, then, this controversy is really perfectly acceptable--it amounts merely to taking an administrative decision at Notre Dame out beyond the walls of the university. It really isn't about a matter of principle. In other words, by inviting President Obama to receive an honorary degree, the school will not have gone on record contradicting Roman Catholic doctrine on anything!

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