If you have followed the news, you know that Notre Dame's invitation for Obama to give the commencement address this year has caused quite a stir. Many are upset at what seems to be an obvious contradiction between some of Obama's beliefs and policies and some of the Catholic Church's teachings. Others are even more upset at the conferral of an honorary Ph.D. from the law school.
I spent some time discussing the matter with a friend, a Ph.D. philosohy student at Notre Dame, and we agreed that there is a lot of silly thinking going on around this topic. It turns out that it is tradition for N.D. to invite a new president to speak, so that is not so unusual, but I expressed that my greatest source of concern was the honorary degree. A speech, especially at a university where a diversity of views ought to be welcomed, is not that unusual. What is more of an association is the degree. It openly states that some department - the law department in this case - recognizes some achievement they wish to say is worthy of their Ph.D.
Francis Beckwith, now a visiting scholar at Notre Dame, was interviewed by Sarah Pulliam for Christianity Today. Not an intellectual slouch, Beckwith had some interesting things to say.
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.
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 last question to Beckwith, who famously converted from protestantism to Catholicism recently, was whether there were things for evangelicals to learn through all this.
I think all Christians can learn to start thinking about what it means to believe something.
One way or another...Amen!