Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Notre Dame: a matter of testimony of faith

Though there has been widespread comment on the decision of the authorities at Notre Dame University in America to award President Obama an honorary degree, and to have him deliver the commencement address, I have so far not posted anything on the topic.

The Notre Dame episode is not the first one in the last year or so in which the blogs, and Catholic blogs in particular, have engaged in what one might call "internet campaigning". One can perhaps consider the responses to Bishop O'Donoghue's "Fit for Mission" programme in the Diocese of Lancaster, and to his approach to equalities legislation and Catholic adoption agencies (where Catholic blogs have been very supportive: here, here and here and other places, too). And another example, where the blogs were more critical is that of Cherie Blair's invitation to speak at a conference at the Angelicum university in Rome: see here, here, here, here and elsewhere).

Both the positive campaigning and the critical campaigning can be problematical. Some months ago now I heard a comment, in the context of Summorum Pontificum and a diocese that was not Lancaster, but perhaps also applicable to "Fit for Mission" and Lancaster. The comment went roughly along the lines that perhaps 10 priests of the diocese were ecstatic about Summorum Pontificum, another 10 priests were horrifically opposed - but, for the vast majority, it was probably just another piece of paper going across their desks to which they were at best indifferent. It is quite possible that widespread conservative support (that might well be how people perceive it) for "Fit for Mission" from people outside the diocese might have adversely affected the response of what might be called the average priest in the diocese. I do not know, and would be pleased to learn the contrary from those who do know, but I would suggest a certain circumspection on the part of those outside the diocese might not go amiss in order to avoid an unnecessary difficulty. On a similar vein, politicians can very easily spot an orchestrated campaign of support (or criticism) which has a diluting effect on its value (or disvalue) to the recipient. The critical campaigning can become tantamount to cyberbullying, particularly where blog readers are deliberately encouraged to complain to an organisation in which they have no direct stake on a subject or about an event in which they have no direct engagement.

In responding, particularly in an electronic medium, to these sorts of situations a third problem also exists. This might be termed "co-option", and involves a situation where the expressions of support mean that a statement or position adopted by someone associates them with movements or opinions that they would not intend to support. This is an injustice towards the person involved, and the ease of its propagation in the electronic media makes the injustice worse. Commenters on blogs need to take some care about this.

These considerations represent the reasons why I have not posted on this question so far.

1. I do think that it is quite possible for Catholic institutions to invite speakers who are not supportive of Catholic teaching. This is legitimate, in my view, when: (a) the speaker has been invited to contribute an area of expertise, which may well not be related to the area of their opposition to the Church's teaching, but which it is valuable to consider for an issue of concern to the Church; and (b) a context, such as that of an academic conference or study day, exists that demonstrates an engagement in dialogue/debate and not of approbation. I would expect that there are ample precedents for this in the proceedings of Pontifical Academies such as that of the sciences and social sciences. I am aware, too, of speakers from the World Health Organisation taking part in conferences organised by the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral of Health.

2. There is a different situation when a speaker is invited for a prestige event, or is awarded an honour. In such a situation, an element of approbation of the views of the speaker is, at the very least implicit, though probably to a greater or lesser degree explicit. The creation of scandal then ensues, when a Catholic institution is seen as approving a point of view that is opposed to Catholic teaching.

It appears to me that the invitation from Notre Dame to President Obama falls into this latter category. I do not think that that invitation should have been given, and feel able to express that view here. Catholics in America, and those associated with Notre Dame university, have a responsibility to express their views on this matter, too. The most fundamental question for them, though, is less one of "protest" in the political/secular sense, though it will clearly have an aspect of this. It is, more fundamentally, one of witness, of giving a public testimony to their support of Catholic teaching. This seems to me, for example, to be the fundamental meaning of the statements of Catholic bishops in the United States in opposition to Notre Dame's invitation, though it too has political and disciplinary aspects.

In this sense, there are two particular witnesses that I think are worthy of mention.

There is the visit of Fr Frank Pavone to Notre Dame to coincide with the visit of President Obama, described in this video and this post. He will join a number of Notre Dame students who are not going to attend their graduation ceremony. carries details of the student response at Notre Dame itself.

The second witness worthy of mention is Mary Ann Glendon's letter, in which she declines to accept the Laetare Medal at the same ceremony at which President Obama will speak. In my view, this letter, more than anything else, represents a witness of faithfulness to the Church, it is profoundly ecclesial in its spirit.

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