If you have not heard yet, President Barack Obama has accepted an invitation from the University of Notre Dame¯not only to address its graduates at its May 17 commencement exercises but also to have bestowed upon him at this event an honorary doctorate of laws.
The University of Notre Dame is a Catholic university, which means that it affirms the truth of Catholic moral theology and all that it entails about liberty, community, and the dignity of the human person. According to Catholic moral theology, a regime whose laws sequester a group of human beings from its protections for reasons that are capricious and gravely immoral is a regime whose laws on this matter are not really laws at all. In fact, we need not even consult a Catholic theologian, philosopher, or legal scholar to receive clarity on this question. We can cite the words of a Baptist minister, who made generous use of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas in what has become one of the most important epistles in American political discourse. On April 16, 1963, in his “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. penned these words:
I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.” Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.
According to Catholic moral theology, the unborn human being, from the moment of conception, is a full-fledged member of the human community. That means that the unborn’s personhood is not like a matter of taste, preference, or a “deep concern” of “personal belief.” It is a fact that pro-lifers are convinced they know is true, just like such other facts as that Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, that it’s wrong to torture children for fun, that Mother Teresa was morally better than Adolf Hitler, and that the Earth is the third planet from the Sun.
But President Obama vigorously opposes this pro-life understanding of human community. For those who may doubt this claim, one need only consult the consistent and unbroken public record the president has established on this matter. It began when he was an Illinois state senator, continued during his brief stint in the U. S. Senate, and has been an integral part of the agenda of the first sixty days of his administration. Admittedly, Obama is an articulate, winsome, intelligent, and gifted leader. But, whether we like it or not, he has employed those gifts as an apologist for excluding prenatal human beings from the protections of our laws. And he has not been shy in making this plain for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.
While in the Illinois legislature he opposed legislation that would have required that medical assistance be provided to children who survive abortions. While in the U. S. Senate, he voiced his strong disapproval of the U.S. Supreme Court’s upholding of the federal partial-birth abortion ban, a modest restriction on a particularly gruesome abortion procedure.
During his presidential campaign Senator Obama affirmed his support for the right to abortion by explaining that he did not want his daughters to be “punished with a baby” if they made a mistake. He made no secret of his desire to repeal the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal tax dollars from being used to pay for abortions except those intended to save the life of the mother or for women who had become pregnant as a result of rape or incest. He also declared during his campaign that he would sign into law the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA), a piece of federal legislation that would eliminate restrictions on state and federal funding of abortion as well as virtually all state and federal restrictions on abortion, including the federal and state partial-birth abortion bans and parental notification and consent statutes. It would also eliminate conscience clauses that presently allow pro-life health care workers to opt out of performing or participating in abortions or referring patients to abortion providers.
Right now Obama’s administration is planning to reverse an executive order issued at the end of the Bush administration that not only included these protections but also protections against discrimination of health care workers and students because of their pro-life beliefs. And earlier this month, the president lifted the ban on federal funding of embryo-destruction research.
This executive order also permitted human cloning as well as funding for it, with the caveat that no human clone may be implanted in a womb and brought to term. A human clone, according to the president’s order, may only be used for research purposes. So, for the first time in American history a president has by executive order mandated that some human beings, merely because of the means by which they came into being, must be destroyed as a matter of federal law. And finally, the president rescinded the Mexico City policy that prohibited U.S. funds to be used for the procuring of abortions internationally.
So, this is the man on whom the University of Notre Dame wants to bestow an honorary doctorate of laws? But, as we have clearly seen, Obama, in spite of all his personal talents and accomplishments, explicitly and unapologetically rejects the intrinsic dignity of the human person, the proper subject of the natural and canonical laws on which the university’s jurisprudential patrimony rests. It is a jurisprudential patrimony that the university not only claims to believe, it claims both to believe that it is true and that it knows that it is true.
I have no doubt that Notre Dame would never bestow an honorary doctorate in science to an astronomer who vigorously advances the agenda of geocentricity or a chemist who refuses to teach his students the periodic table, or award an honorary doctorate in divinity to a theologian who is an unrepentant apologist for racial apartheid and white supremacy, regardless of what these three individuals may have accomplished or how well their celebrity may be received by the wider culture and its influential institutions.
Why then would the University of Notre Dame bestow an honorary doctorate of laws on someone who for his entire public life has enthusiastically fought for a segment of the human population, the unborn, to remain permanently outside the protections of the law? Not only that, he has also demanded that our legal regime require that his fellow citizens, including Catholics, underwrite the destruction of these prenatal human beings. And not only that, he is right now preparing to remove by executive order protections that were put in place so that pro-life physicians, nurses, medical students, and others in the health care field may not be forced to participate in abortions or be discriminated against for refusing to do so or even harboring such beliefs.
Unless the university does not believe that the Church’s understanding of the moral law is true and knowable, it can no more in good conscience award an honorary doctorate of laws to a lawyer who rejects the humanity of the proper subjects of law than it could in good conscience award an honorary doctorate in science to a geocentric astronomer who rejects the deliverances of the discipline he claims to practice.
At some point, a Christian university must recognize that the truth it claims to know matters, even if the truth is unpopular, and even if the propagation and celebration of that truth may put one’s community at odds with those persons and centers of influence and power that dispense prestige and authority in our culture.
We should defer again to the words of Martin Luther King Jr.:
There was a time when the church was very powerful¯in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent¯and often even vocal¯sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth [and twenty-first] century.
Francis J. Beckwith is the 2008—2009 Mary Ann Remick Senior Visiting Fellow in the Notre Dame Center for Ethics & Culture at the University of Notre Dame, and professor of philosophy and church-state studies at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. His most recent book i s Return to Rome: Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic . Portions of this essay were delivered by Prof. Beckwith on March 28, 2009 at the University of Notre Dame for the 2009 Notre Dame Right to Life Collegiate Conference.