Monday, May 10, 2010

President Obama and His Notre Dame Commencement Address

Last November I participated in a panel at a conference at the University of Notre Dame on the issue of President Obama's May 2009 commencement address. Other participants on the panel included Radford University's Matthew Franck and Gwen Brown, moderated by my Baylor colleague, Donald Schmeltekopf.

A version of the paper I delivered on that panel has just been published in Touchstone: A Magazine of Mere Christianity (May/June 2010).   Entitled, "Justice for Some: Moral Theology & the President’s Honorary Doctorate," here is an excerpt:
Now I would like to discuss a portion of President Obama’s commencement address that, although it has been applauded by many of his Catholic and Evangelical supporters, I believe expressed a misunderstanding of the pro-life position—a misunderstanding that may serve to diminish the moral seriousness of the effort to protect unborn persons, which the pro-life movement has fought hard to communicate for several decades now.
In his address, Obama said that, on the issue of abortion, we should strive for common ground, since, “no matter how much we may want to fudge it . . . at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable.” This is certainly true, and thus, one who does not share the president’s view on abortion should not fault him for reaching out to those with whom he disagrees.
Nevertheless, I believe the president’s call for common ground should not be confused with a pro-life understanding of humanity’s wideness. Here are the president’s words from his speech:
So let’s work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions by reducing unintended pregnancies, and making adoption more available, and providing care and support for women who do carry their child to term. Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded in clear ethics and sound science, as well as respect for the equality of women.
The president chose his words carefully. Let’s begin with the second sentence. He tells us that people “disagree with abortion,” though that’s not quite right. Pro-lifers don’t condemn abortion because they disagree with it; they think abortion is unjustified homicide. It’s hard to imagine President Obama saying that he “disagrees with” spousal abuse, genocide, or racial discrimination. He would say that these things are categorically wrong; thus, it would diminish the seriousness of his convictions for us to cast his judgments in language that makes it sound as if he is merely being contrary. Likewise, by framing pro-lifers’ objection to abortion as a subjective opinion rather than as a serious moral judgment they believe to be true and universal, the president diminished the pro-life conscience he calls for us to honor.
You can read the whole thing here.


kkollwitz said...

Due to clear thinking from writers such as you, I believe the abortion proponents find themselves increasingly on the defensive.

I'll read the whole thing in my copy of Touchstone.

Neil Parille said...

I don't agree with ND giving Obama a doctorate or having him speak there, but didn't the Catholic church sign the Joint Decree on Justification with the World Lutheran Federation which is made up of churches that support abortion?

It's not exactly equivalent, but Rome doesn't allow such issues to interfere with ecumenicalism.