I can't help but play Devil's Advocate, even with myself.
Before submitting my last column, I was contemplating writing a piece about why I, as a practicing Catholic, believed that President Obama should be welcomed to speak at this year's commencement at Notre Dame University, as well as presented with an honorary doctorate. Now, reading my much-admired fellow columnist Robert Shrum, I feel compelled to respond as to why those Catholics who object have every right to do so without being branded sharia-style fanatics.
Normally, I find myself fighting my right-wing coreligionists, not defending them, when it comes to reproductive rights. It's not that I differ so much with the dogmatists' moral position on the issue. I just can't stand their strategy. It enrages me that if one came down from Mars at election time, one might assume that the Catholic Church was founded for the sole purpose of criminalizing abortion and hounding public officials who don't want to criminalize it, too. It drives me crazy that any politician who takes a rigidly pro-life line gets a functionally free ride on all other questions, including that of the welfare of the child once born.
As a practical matter, I also think that it's ridiculous to insist upon an outright ban of abortion in America as if that is ever going to happen, and without any regard for the consequences if it were to happen. On balance, would it really protect the unborn, or simply fatten the wallets of underground and/or Canadian abortionists? What about the mothers? As common-sense Catholics, shouldn't we at least ask ourselves about that?
As for Notre Dame's commencement lineup, I think that if the university were to limit its speaking-invitation possibilities to people who promote the agenda of Rome, it would be a short list—and, it bears noting, a list that would preclude numerous conservatives on the death penalty alone.
So I largely agree with Shrum, and yet I am sitting here, fuming at him. Why? First and foremost, it's the total and typical refusal to acknowledge how hard this issue really is for those who care about it. Instead, he denigrates pro-life advocates as pathetic failures at pluralism. Ask yourself: if you truly believed that abortion was the premeditated, purposeful taking of an innocent human life, would you find it so easy to greet abortion-rights activists with a chorus of, “You say tomayto, I say tomahto....”? I doubt it.
This doesn't mean that the public policy ramifications are automatically clear. But please. This isn't like tax policy or NAFTA, about which nice people can agree to disagree. Nor is it any comfort that a majority of Americans differ with the church on this. At one time, a majority of Americans believed that slavery, wife-beating and child labor were all okay. If anything, when a university disagrees with the majority view, it ought to amplify its dissent, not muffle it.
On that note, Shrum seems to have a very broad definition of muffling. It's one thing to think that the church should quit demonizing pro-choice politicians. It's another to argue that unless the church decks them out with honors, it is trying to have them “condemned and silenced,” as he accuses the Notre Dame naysayers of doing to the president. Since when is getting an honorary doctorate a right of free speech? And since when is rejecting one's own award in deference to one's own conscience, as Mary Ann Glendon has chosen to do, an occasion for anything but admiration? Come to think of it, protests notwithstanding, Notre Dame has chosen to stick by its speaking invitation to the president, and he has chosen to stick by his acceptance. In the end, the “neo-Caths” have been overriden on this one. That's fine—but not good enough for the likes of Shrum, who apparently wants the objectors, however conscientious, to shut up completely. Hey: Who's trying to muffle whom?
All that said, Notre Dame isn't the Catholic Church. It's a Catholic university in America, and as such should be free to welcome speakers of all religious backgrounds and ideological convictions, the better to enrich the intellectual lives of all. Hear, hear! But let's remember all this the next time a great secular university honors a favorite of the religious right. When my alma mater, Yale University, gave George W. Bush a doctorate in 2001 (before he had even invaded anyplace), outraged faculty and students responded with a boycott.
Shrum is right about one thing. At Notre Dame and elsewhere, the abortion debate is controlled by zealots hell-bent on promoting their simplistic views of a complex issue. But the zealots are not just those on the Right who will countenance absolutely no abortion. They're also those on the Left who will countenance absolutely no restriction on abortion.
At Notre Dame, President Obama should give it to both sides but good. If he did, I'd help him run for pope.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- How our botched understanding of 'science' ruins everything
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- California's epic drought
- 6 things the happiest families all have in common
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- Why so many Christians won't back down on gay marriage
- The science of sex: 4 harsh truths about dating and mating
- How Scotland's independence movement lost the vote and still won everything
- Obama knows he can't really 'defeat' ISIS. Americans need to wake up to that reality, too.
Subscribe to the Week