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Honor, Dialogue and Conscience at Notre Dame

By Daniel Avila
Posted: 5/22/2009

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When I was at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception Grade School in Fort Wayne, in maybe the fourth or fifth grade, the principal came into our classroom to tell us that we should all be very proud because an alumnus, Tom Freistroffer, would be going to Notre Dame to play football. That is when I first became aware of the Notre Dame mystique.

I grew up an hour away from the South Bend campus, within the same northern Indiana Catholic diocese. Although our family allegiance went to Purdue, my dad’s alma mater and an in-state sports rival of Notre Dame, we did make several visits to Notre Dame over the years.

One of my mother’s relatives, Jim Danehy, taught chemistry at the school and was known campus-wide as the classical music host for the school’s radio station. While visiting the Danehy family, my siblings and I traipsed the beautiful grounds of Notre Dame, prayed at the Lourdes grotto, celebrated Mass at the school’s Basilica of the Sacred Heart, and raised our arms to acknowledge “touchdown” Jesus, the famous mosaic on the wall of the University’s library overlooking the football stadium.

Jim was both extremely smart and a devout Catholic. His basement was filled with books on a wide range of subjects, a wonderland for addicted readers such as me. As time has passed, I have met and have been inspired by other Notre Dame faculty and alumni who exhibit the same enthusiasm for faith and reason.

Their witness has helped to guide me in my professional and personal life, which has taken me down paths that require constant interactions with others who disagree with my core convictions. That is why the current controversy involving the decision of the University’s President and its Trustees to give an honorary law degree to President Barack Obama is more than just a headline to me.

The root question raised by the Notre Dame situation is how are we to deal with evil in the midst of good? It is a question that arises when we ponder the radical imperfections within ourselves, in others and in the world around us while at the same time wanting to acknowledge the good that we possess and see in others and in our world due to God’s providence.

For example, when I struggle with personal sins sometimes I find myself being tempted to focus on my good qualities as a way of avoiding the seriousness of what is spiritually at stake. I am not a bad person, I tell myself, in a manner that minimizes the wrong I have done.

One time, while contemplating this evasive maneuver, I happened to glance at a nearby crucifix, and a thought transfixed me. My sins caused Jesus to suffer. Why do I choose to act in a way that causes my Savior’s agony? Then it occurred to me that Jesus died for my sins because he willingly endured the pain caused by my sins. Why would He do that? He did it because of the good that exists in me.

I felt new courage in facing and taking full responsibility for my own weaknesses and, with the help of sacramental reconciliation, that courage became the source of a new and greater good within me. In that instance, the dying to self that my glance towards the cross occasioned did not dishonor whatever good I possess. Instead through God’s grace that good became stronger.

How does this apply to the recent events at Notre Dame? Notre Dame President Father John Jenkins explained at the commencement that the motivation for honoring President Obama was to recognize the good found in his personal qualities and achievements, in his success in breaking the color barrier to the presidency, and in various policies that his administration has initiated or will seek. Father Jenkins asserted that “if we want to enter into dialogue” on issues of disagreement, “then surely we can start by acknowledging what is honorable in others.”

In other remarks delivered during the program, after commending the “lonely, courageous, and conscientious choice” of Mary Ann Glendon to refuse an award and the opportunity to speak at the same commencement, Judge John Noonan said that while he respected her decision, “I am here to affirm that all consciences are not the same.” “We can recognize great goodness in our nation’s president without defending all of his multitudinous decisions,” Judge Noonan continued, and therefore “we can rejoice on this wholly happy occasion.”

I could not and did not rejoice. To me, in the bestowal of the honor and the justifications given for it, there seemed too little of the cross and self-denial. Instead I was left with the impression of a minimizing of injustice conjoined with, as the local ordinary Bishop John D’Arcy observed, a suggestion of a desire for greater prestige.

Among the unjust proposals threatening the dignity and sanctity of human life espoused by the Obama Administration, the White House has moved already to expand federal support for abortion and embryo destruction. In his commencement remarks, Father Jenkins touted the President’s initiatives on healthcare, the economy, and the climate among other laudable but secondary concerns. It was as if, when comparing good and wrong, advances on these fronts could outweigh the President’s full-scale retreat from protecting innocent human life itself.

Moreover, the argument that bestowing an honorary degree is essential to dialogue fails to consider all of the ways that a relationship suitable to dialogue can be built. Such an argument cannot adequately explain why Notre Dame and other Catholic institutions have not and will not likely ever bestow honors recognizing the good qualities of advocates for racism, for example. In the end, honors employed and justified in such fashion will only dull the recipient’s conscience and encourage the continued bifurcation between morality and policy that plagues our society today.

Daniel Avila is the Associate Director for Policy and Research of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.