Sunday, March 29, 2009

Interesing blog, interesting take...

The Creative Minority Report is a blog I ought to add to the roll. There is an interesting piece there about the bishop of Madison, WI's remarks regarding the ND controversy.

The short version of my take on the controversy is: if the Pope can make Nicholas Sarkozy an honorary Canon of the Cathedral Basilica of St. John Lateran, then Barack Obama can speak at ND (thanks to CC for the succint formulation).


Clayton said...

I don't know enough about Sarkozy and the circumstances of his visit to the Vatican. Who initiated the visit? Was it an invitation of the Vatican? And is Sarkozy a baptized member of the Catholic Church?

According to Wikipedia, the conferral of the Honorary Chanoine is automatically conferred to each French President. That seems different than a voluntary invitation to speak at commencement ceremonies. Would there really be a question of giving the Honorary Chanoine to someone else? It always goes to the French president. Nothing really voluntary about it.

Plus, one might ask: In what capacity did the Pope confer this -- as Roman Pontiff, as head of state, etc.? At any rate, he would seem to be acting in a very different sort of capacity than as president of a Catholic university. Also, the statement of a national bishops' conference re: university honors given to pro-choice politicians would not really be germane to the Pope's action, it seems to me.

Lazy Disciple said...

Dear Clayton,

I am not sure whether you are using too sharp a scalpel or too brittle a broadsword, as it were.

The point I think no one is seeing is that, just as Pope Benedict XVI received in audience and gave an honorific title to Sarkozy, precisely insofar as he is the French head of state, so might Notre Dame welcome the President of the United States - who is our head of state - and grant him the award that Presidents of the United States generally receive when they accept such invitations.

Said negatively: no one dreams of interpreting the conferral of the title on Sarkozy as an endorsement either of his public policy positions (pro-abort, albeit not so radically so as B.O.), or of his conduct in private life; in the ND case, neither the invitation, nor the award of the honorary doctorate need be interpreted as an endorsement of the President's social policy positions.

Notre Dame issued a poorly written statement clarificatory, which contained a badly argued defense of their decision to invite the president (I refer to the now infamous "leadership" justification). Now, here's the thing: one can say that the defense does not hold as made, that the justification, as made, must fail; these amount to saying something like, "Well, that's no reason for doing X." This last statmeent may be quite true, and yet may not at all succeed as an indictment of the act that occasioned the critique that called forth the justification.

Said shortly, people often offer poor justifications for their actions, when the moral standing of their actions is challenged with unexpected vehemence and the actors themselves have clean consciences. Very often in such cases, the halting justification ends up casting morally unexceptionable actions in a bad light, one that in turn reflects badly on the agent.

I really think the central issue in this whole debacle is ND's status as a premier Catholic institution of higher learning, which is still Catholic in a meaningful sense, but that has been the scene of some serious battles in the culture wars.

People are understandably sensitive, given these circumstances. I suggest that they are perhaps too sensitive, their hackles raised too quickly.


Clayton said...

You make a good point. In a context devoid of the culture wars currently raging in America, or the way the national media frequently interprets and exploits said wars, the act itself might have been considered morally neutral.

In particular, I think a number of people would fear that ND's decision was a signal that the demise of Catholic culture in Boston was being recapitulated in another icon of Catholic American culture and learning.

...People often offer poor justifications for their actions, when the moral standing of their actions is challenged with unexpected vehemence and the actors themselves have clean consciences.

This is a good observation as well. It certainly didn't help when Dennis Brown, as spokesman for Notre Dame, told the AP last Tuesday that the volume of complaints to the university was "nothing beyond what we anticipated." (more here ) If the response was truly unexpected, it would have been better simply to admit that than to say it had been anticipated.

The whole situation gives one pause to consider the nature of scandal. Every act has a context and will be interpreted in various ways. Setting aside for a moment the question of intention of those performing acts considered by some as scandalous... should the little ones be held accountable for misinterpreting the gesture? Is it possible, in some cases, to be personally responsible for the experience of being scandalized by the acts of others? Or does the burden of public perception largely rest upon the one performing the act in question?

Lazy Disciple said...

Good questions.

You ask whether the little ones should be held accountable for misinterpreting the gesture. I respond that, in some cases, the answer is yes. The real issue, however, is the self-righteous breast beating among those who really ought to know better.

What if people had come out and, instead of attacking ND, said something like, "ND is a great institution, and the presence of the Chief of State at their graduation is appropriate. Just in case you are wondering, the award is a matter of course - it ought in no wise be interpreted as an endorsement of the President's policies. You ask whether this sends the wrong message in these culturally charged times? To the extent it does send a message, it says American Catholic intellectuals bear no ill-will to the President, are proud of their country, and fully engaged in the serious cultural debate on which the future of our society depends." More later...

Clayton said...

Kenneth Woodward's reaction seems to be along the lines of what you're describing.