Christianity Today has an insightful conversation with Francis Beckwith, visiting fellow at Notre Dame, on this contentious issue. Here's an excerpt:
This reminds me of Madeline L'Engle's exploration of faith and art in Walking on Water. Art, if it fails to tell the truth, can never be great art, no matter how clever and skillful the artist. Barack Obama may be a great man in many ways, but until he recognizes the truth about the value of human life he will continue to create policies that are at best, weak and at worst, massively destructive.
Since the President will speak at several commencement ceremonies during his term, why did his invitation to speak at Notre Dame create such a stir?
There's nothing wrong with inviting speakers to campus who disagree with the university. I don't think that's the issue here. Here, you have a combination of a commencement address and an honorary doctorate. The honorary doctorate is more troubling than the commencement address because to give him an honorary doctorate in law is to say that he's accomplished something in the field of law that the University of Notre Dame wants to honor. In the past three weeks, we've seen a number of different events, one of which was the change in policy on embryonic stem cell research. The problem is, the areas in which he's been involved with legislation on the issue of abortion have been contrary to Catholic teaching.
Colleges regularly invite people whom they may disagree with to speak on campus. For instance, Wheaton College invited Condoleezza Rice to speak at commencement even though she is pro-choice.
I can see a situation where you have an elected official who may be pro-choice, but it's not the focus or center of their legislative history. For instance, Houston Baptist invited Rudolph Giuliani, but he just gave a speech. He even acknowledged in his speech, "Look, my views on abortion are not held by a vast majority of you in the audience." But I think that Houston Baptist would not have given him an honorary doctorate in law. One of the things Obama is working on right now is perhaps overturning the conscience clause that the Bush administration had instituted, which has a direct bearing on Catholic hospitals. Here, you have a case where somebody claims to extol the virtue of choice but wants to remove choice from the conscience of citizens when it comes to performing or referring people for abortions.
Pope John Paul II issued Ex Corde Ecclesiae in 1990 stressing the importance of the Catholic character of Catholic institutions of higher learning. How has Ex Corde Ecclesiae influenced this current debate?
I think the statement has given them a template to look at the relationship between Catholic theology and the university. If places like Notre Dame took it seriously, an invitation to be the commencement speaker and receive an honorary doctorate would not have gone out. For instance, I would welcome Barack Obama to speak at Baylor. But in this case, the honorary doctorate doesn't go to the office of the President. It goes to Barack Obama, even after he ceases to be president. In a way, that gives an imprimatur on him and his views that I don't think Notre Dame should give him. I think if he were just the commencement speaker and not receiving the honorary doctorate, it would tone down the criticism. How can Notre Dame give him an honorary doctorate for excellence in something that our own theology teaches he isn't excellent in?
The real debate is whether theological claims can count as knowledge. I think that's what the Pope is saying: if we think theology is true and knowable, that means it's no different than what we learn in literature or sociology or philosophy. If that's the case, the university is where we should integrate these areas of knowledge. Theology shouldn't be an after thought. It shouldn't be relegated to campus ministry. It's like in the evangelical world, tagging on a Bible verse. You'll have a book on Christianity and science and it'll be regular science and a section of Bible verses. You think, "This isn't integration, this is weird."
I think the graduating class of '09 could be really inspired by whatever Obama has to say on May 17th, and I wouldn't want to deprive them of the oppurtunity to hear that. We don't have to agree with everything a person believes to learn from them. But for a Catholic University to bestow an honorary doctorate on someone who clearly has a very poor understanding of the most fundamental rights of Americans is either hollow flattery or major ignorance and, either way, completely inappropriate for an institution of such stature.