Topic: Professions & Institutions

Obama at Notre Dame
(5/26/2009)

Notre Dame’s decision to award an honorary degree to President Barack Obama erupted into a controversy echoing with the words we love dearly at the Ethics Scoreboard: principles … integrity … values. Inconveniently, the actual question of whether it is right or wrong for the Catholic college to honor an individual who has aggressively and consistently opposed restrictions on abortion forces the Scoreboard to choose between two of its own deeply held principles. Principle one is that all citizens should treat the President of the United States with respect, deference and honor, irrespective of political and policy differences. Principal two is that institutions and organizations have an obligation not to bestow honors on individuals when doing so has the effect of validating, endorsing, or giving acceptance to serious unethical conduct and unacceptable values.

When a college honors a president, it is presumably honoring the office and the institution as well as the man. Requiring all honorees to be in lockstep ideologically and politically with a school’s traditions is counter to the purpose of education. And yet...honors do have meaning. They imply endorsement, to some extent, and validation. Barack Obama is not a generic president; he is a specific president. It is impossible to honor the office and not to honor him. Is it possible to honor him without appearing to validate and endorse his actions and beliefs?

The Scoreboard condemned Nickelodeon for nominating rapper Chris Brown for a Kid’s Choice Award while Brown was facing charges stemming from the beating of his girlfriend, pop star Rihanna. I argued that honoring an individual who had recently engaged in such conduct was irresponsible for a children’s network, and sent a message that violence against women was not a serious offense. In this case, the network’s intent was clearly to honor only Brown’s music; still, honoring the singer also honors the girlfriend-beater. The Scoreboard concluded that the wrongfulness of violence in relationships was an important value for children to learn...too important to have a popular children’s network bestow accolades on a performer who had recently engaged in it.

The sanctity of human life, defined as existing from the moment of conception, is a core value of the Catholic Church. Is it right for a Catholic university to honor an individual who has, in his political and public service career, denied that value? Is it responsible? Does this not also send a mixed message?

The argument of those who objected to Obama’s honorary degree was based on the seriousness of core principle involved. It is relatively easy for those who either support abortion rights or who somehow live with the Cuomo-Biden-Kerry Weasel Dodge---claiming that they agree with the Catholic Church that all life is sacred, that the unborn are as alive as the born, and yet support the rights of others to end unborn lives---to argue that Obama’s variance from Church dogma on this point should not be dispositive. Obviously, such individuals think Obama is on the right side of the issue, so his views are not offensive to them: what’s the big deal? The ethics of the matter have nothing to do with whether one supports abortion or not, however. The question is whether an institution should honor individuals whose opinions and actions directly contradict the core values institution teaches. If Brandeis University invited President Obama, and he was on record as denying that the Holocaust ever happened, it would cause a student and alumni uprising, even if the President’s speech was going to be identical to the speech he gave at Notre Dame. “Well,” you may argue, “that’s different. Holocaust denial is an affront to all Jews, indeed, all civilized humanity. It’s more serious!” Really? More serious than defending and supporting the murder of innocent human life? Because that is exactly what Catholic doctrine teaches that abortion is, whether you and I agree with the characterization or not.

A 2004 statement by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops declared: "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." The Scoreboard cannot disagree with that argument. PETA would not and could not honor an individual, however accomplished, who accepted the honor wearing a mink coat. The ACLU could not honor Antonin Scalia for his distinguished judicial career, as if the opinions and dissents he has written opposing the organization’s core principles don’t exist. The NAACP is not going to honor Clarence Thomas for his accomplishments as a black man and ignore the fact that he opposes affirmative action.

Civility, dialogue, mutual respect and tolerance are critical in a properly functioning democratic society. Civility, however, requires a handshake, not a hug. Dialogue can still be a heated debate. Respecting an adversary does not mean that you have to be his friend and ally. And none of us should hesitate to identify conduct, words, and opinions we will not tolerate, if they are significant enough to be intolerable.

The protesters were right.

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