A Modest Proposal for Dialogue at Notre Dame Print
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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