The Catholic Thing
A Modest Proposal for Dialogue at Notre Dame Print E-mail
By Hadley Arkes   
Sunday, 29 March 2009

Immanuel Kant reminded us of the difference between feelings of inarticulable affection and the tendering of respect: When we offer our respect, we are expressing our reverence for that law, or principle, of which a person would be an example. That point, so elementary, seems to have eluded the deep-dish minds among some professors and their wards at Notre Dame. For some reason they cannot quite understand that when they “honor” Barack Obama, they are honoring the law of which he has made himself an example. They are honoring the principles that he has now marked off, inescapably, as the defining principles of his own character and the administration he directs.

Mr. Obama is the first president to regard abortion not merely as a regrettable public choice, but as a public good to be promoted at every turn with the levers of law and public funding. His decision to sweep away any inhibitions on the destruction of embryos reflects a mind that has run well beyond the calculation of therapies near or distant. His support for that research can be understood only on the basis of his willingness to affirm, yet again, that the embryo, or the nascent child, constitutes no “life” that commands our respect.

We have heard the curious argument now, piped out of South Bend, that the students overwhelmingly voted for Obama in the election. One student offered the insight that the students at Notre Dame reveal a range of moral and political views that puts them quite at variance with the teachings of the Catholic Church. He thought it would be eminently fitting, then, if the university adjusted its own doctrines to accord more closely with those of its students. Of course, the Church itself encompasses sinners in all their varieties. As Henry James once put it, this is a Church “with no small pruderies to enforce.” Catholic universities, reflecting that large nature, take in students who are not Catholic. But now we are told that, in showing in this way its generous spirit, the university should be obliged also to recede from any teaching that marks it distinctly as a Catholic university.

The President of Notre Dame, the Rev. John Jenkins, has offered his own words to put the matter in a more defensible light, and those words have been echoed by members of the faculty. Let me take them at their word, and offer a proposal. President Jenkins was reported to have said that he doesn’t condone President Obama’s policies, and yet he thinks it important for the president to come to Notre Dame “to engage in conversation.” President Obama’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, noted that the president had met recently with Francis Cardinal George to discuss matters of interest to the Church. And with that background, he said, the president “looks forward to continuing that dialogue in the lead-up to the commencement” at Notre Dame.

As H.L. Mencken used to say, people ought to get what they want “good and hard.” If the university excuses itself in this instance with the claim that the president is coming to Notre Dame to have a serious conversation, well … let’s have that serious conversation. Notre Dame is amply supplied with people who can articulate the Catholic position on abortion and the taking of innocent life. Why not have a debate/discussion? The legendary Ralph McInerny is on the scene, and so too is Gerard Bradley at the law school. But also there are others among us, as they say, who “Have Argument, Will Travel.”

The most notable, just passing through as it happens, is our dear and formidable friend, Mary Ann Glendon, professor of law at Harvard and the erstwhile ambassador to the Vatican. She may be on the scene to receive the Laetare Medal at Notre Dame, and while she is there, she has the standing to meet the president on a common platform. If she is reluctant to mix her missions with this visit, there are people off the campus: I would volunteer my friend Robert George at Princeton, and yes, I would not turn down the call myself, if asked. In fact, regardless of who is asked, I could add this service: I could supply the president with the text of the argument I offered in a debate with Douglas Kmiec at Villanova. The president could have then in advance a statement of the substantive arguments directed against him; the arguments he might prepare himself to meet.

Would it be indecorous for a president to debate ordinary citizens in this way? This president did not think he was demeaning himself when he flew to Los Angeles in order to be a guest on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Instead of receiving Leno at the White House, he traveled to the site of genuine authority in the world of celebrities. If he could do The Tonight Show, it would not be demeaning to meet accomplished academics on the plane of a serious conversation – if indeed we are to take seriously the affectation of Notre Dame that it is inviting the president there for a conversation. Let us take the official spokesmen at their word and hold them to it: Let us have that conversation and debate. On what tenable ground would they refuse?

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College.

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Comments (19)Add Comment
speaker and author
written by Mary Z. McGrath, March 30, 2009
written by Alessandro, March 30, 2009
If Notre Dame merely wanted to engage the President in dialogue, it doesn't have to go the extra step of bestowing upon him an honorary doctorate in jurisprudence. By doing so, Notre Dame is, indeed, "honoring" Mr. Obama.

The Catholic University should remain faithful to the Faith... and if its Catholic students are no longer faithful, it should work on strengthening their catechism, as well.
written by martin, March 30, 2009
Thank you Prof. Arkes I think you're a star - expose them, call their bluff. Nothing like this can ever happen again. If we hound the charlatans from public life we might finally be able to get rid of Land 'O Lakes.
Define Truth First?
written by William Dennis, March 30, 2009
Intersting would be a meeting of the minds of Catholic intellectuals and Obama. However, I am pessimistic about such an encounter being fruitful in this postmodern era. I would say that most student bodies of Catholic universities, my own alma mater, Villanova, included, are in a cesspool of moral relatvism. In more Classical times one could start from a point of Absolute Truth. Since there is only truth as a mental and variable abstraction today, I believe that meaningful dialogue is friutless.
written by Ken Colston, March 30, 2009
This debate template should be used by every Catholic university rather than the fulsome and empty fete-and-honor approach. By the way, where did the marvelous a propos quotation from Henry James come from?
written by M. L. Hearing, March 30, 2009
"If he could do The Tonight Show, it would not be demeaning to meet accomplished academics on the plane of a serious conversation."

Yeah, right. That'll never happen because Mr. Obama wants, above all, to win. And if he were to step into the ring for real rational debate, he would lose. So, he won't do it. -M. L. Hearing
LCDR, USN (ret.)
written by Keith Toepfer, March 30, 2009
Prof. Arkes,

From your lips to God's ears. I pray that the Lord may cause this to come to pass.
written by Emily, March 30, 2009
This article explains why it does not matter that the students voted for Obama to speak:
James quote
written by thomas, March 30, 2009
The Henry James quote is from short story, "The Solution"
written by DEBBY, March 30, 2009
Oh, you are good.
My question to you would be, if you give him the advantage of doing his homework for him, vis-a-vis your transcript, will you require that he leave his tele-prompter home and actually formulate a response on his own?
As far as appearing indecorous and demeaning, he might as well don slouch jeans and ripped t-shirts. The office has been dishonored by his behavior and we are only 2+months into the term.
written by Catholic NJ Mom, March 30, 2009
Amen! Reason and humor, the best of both worlds!
written by Hadley Arkes, March 30, 2009
Mr. Colston asked about the source for the quote from Henry James. It's from a story called "The Solution." The narrator was describing a procession on a Sunday in Rome and said, "The bright immensity of the place protected conversation and even gossip. It struck one not as a particular temple, but as formed by the very walls of the faith that has no small pruderies to enforce."
written by Helen, March 31, 2009
How is a commencement speech a platform for dialogue? This seems to me to be a sugar coating. No amount of lipstick will dress up this pig.
written by Phil, March 31, 2009
Obama wouldn't stand a chance in a scholarly debate against any of those people. And besides, Obama is the kind of President who wants to bring people together by trying to gloss over the issues and focus on what we have in common. Forget the economy, let my unborn people go!
ND Class of 1995
written by Jerry Beckett, March 31, 2009
Fr. Jenkins could invite Obama to a reception of ND students and alumni who were unplanned and unwanted pregnancies (I was in an orphanage until after my 1st birthday) and ask him to identify which us should have been aborted. Or he could just ask Obama if his mother should have had the "choice" to abort him. Watching the most powerful man in the world argue for the right for his own mother to kill him would be something I would walk from my Dallas home to South Bend to see....
written by Philomena, April 01, 2009
Isn't there any person of authority that can remove Father Jenkins...Can't the Bishop remove him. Where is the Pope...where are the rest of the Bishops weighing in on ths? And they wonder why the flock is in such disarray and confused..
ND Alum, Seminarian
written by Gerald, April 01, 2009
Most people who bemoan how unCatholic Notre Dame has become have never been there and certainly never been in any classrooms. As the honorable prof. freely admits, there are plenty of faithful fighters in the ranks of the faculty. Jenkins did not hand-pick Obama specifically, ND has invited every president for nearly the past three decades. Will there be much of a debate or dialogue? I doubt it, but read what his General Superior says:
written by MM, April 02, 2009
I just received a quick form letter response to my letter to the USCCB about Notre Dame. It says that in a nutshell that the bishops have no authority over ND and gives a list of other organizations to contact. The bishops' responsibility is that had Catholics been taught orthodoxy over the past 40 years, then neither Clinton nor Obama would have ever been elected. Am I wrong to believe that the USCCB as a group should be the one putting pressure on the organizations they told me to contact?
written by Lori Bourgeois, April 08, 2009
THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!!!! For standing up for our Catholic views and expressing them loudly and intelligently. May our Mother Mary watch over you and your family with All the Graces God has to offer. When God is for you, Who can be against you!! God Bless, Lori Bourgeois, Louisiana

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