The Notre Dame Controversy

Over the last several weeks and months, one of the largest national controversies has been—by some accounts—the most perplexing. President Barack Obama (D), a noted supporter of abortion rights and the destruction of embryos for research, delivered the commencement address and received an honorary degree from the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, a Catholic university.

By all accounts, the address Obama delivered yesterday was gracious, reasonable, and well-delivered. He called for supporters and opponents of abortion rights to find common ground, and to work to reduce the number of abortions in the United States. He called for a ‘sensible conscience clause’ which would allow religious doctors to refuse to provide treatments like abortion that are incompatible with their beliefs. Traditional Catholics have been up-in-arms though about Obama even being invited, since his beliefs run so afoul of Catholic doctrine, and many traditional Catholic students of the university sat-out the event.

So what’s the big deal?

First, Notre Dame is a Catholic university. It professes a Catholic identity. Many students who go there choose the school because it theoretically provides a more moral, less worldly environment as compared to secular schools. That is not to say that it shouldn’t expose its students to opposing viewpoints, but simply that it should present those worldy views in a proper moral context. As a Catholic institution, it must adhere properly to Catholic church policy. Like federal agencies must follow federal law, Catholic agencies must follow Catholic law. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) wrote in their 2004 document “Catholics in Political Life“:

The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.

Thus, the decision by the leaders of the University of Notre Dame acted in direct contravention of the USCCB in inviting Obama to deliver the commencement address, and most certainly in granting him an honorary degree. In doing so they present a scandal and undermine the moral teachings of the church.

The question here is not one of authority, although for us Catholics this is indeed an important point. The question is one of morals.

Most Americans, including a majority of lay Catholics, do not object to Obama speaking at Notre Dame. After all, we should all be open to opposing viewpoints, right? We have our side, Obama has his, and we can all engage in a nice, civil debate about the issues at hand.

In most cases, I would agree. I have long encouraged civil debate of controversial political isuses, and have long lamented the irrational anger present in so much modern political discourse. But what we are talking about here is so fundamental, so central to a civilized world view, that it is difficult (if not impossible) to entertain debate. You either believe that human life has intrinsic value and worth—and thus cannot be destroyed for convenience or research—or you don’t.

The right to life is a prerequisite for every other right. Free speech, free press, free religion, protection of property, the right to bear arms, and the more modern concepts of a right to privacy, right to marry, right to education . . . all of these are absolutely meaningless if one does not have a fundamental right to live. You cannot speak, write, practice religion, own a gun, marry, or go to school if you have been murdered in the womb.

Atheists, non-Catholic Christians, and others might say I’m crazy for saying this. An embryo in the womb is not life, they say. It cannot survive on its own. It is simply a part of a woman’s body, and she can do whatever she chooses with her body.

There are many problems with this view. First and foremost, life begins at conception. This is not merely some quaint teaching of an ancient religious body, it is a fact. The DNA of a fertilized egg cell in a woman’s body is indistinguishable from the DNA that person will have at their birth, at their fifth birthday, and at their hundredth birthday. The more we learn about the development of human beings, the more this fact is reinforced. The better our technology gets, the more we learn about just how quickly a fertilized egg becomes unquestionably human.

Second, since when is independent survival capability a prerequisite for human life? A two year old child is also incapable of surviving on his own. A mentally disabled adult is incapable of surviving on his own. An infirm, elderly man suffering from Alzheimer’s is incapable of surviving on his own. These people are not to be discarded, but are in fact worthy of special attention and protection precisely because they are weak and defenseless. Why should an embryo be less deserving of protection than any of these other defenseless people?

Finally, the argument that a woman has a right to do as she chooses with her body is quite perplexing. If a woman were to decide that her left arm was worthless, and she wished to have it removed, she would be committed to a mental institution. No reputable doctor would be willing to perform the procedure. How strange, then, that we use the explanation that an embryo is part of a woman’s body to justify its medically unnecessary destruction, and that members of the medical profession—sworn to protect life, not destroy it—are all-too-willing to terminate pregnancies.

These are fundamental facts of our existence. They are not ‘Catholic’ views, they are human views. Most people with conscience are well aware that abortion is wrong or, at least, find themselves faced with an ephemeral discomfort about the subject whenever it comes up. Some bury their intuitive, natural moral understanding under a cloak of ‘choice’ or ‘liberty’, but the reality is much less noble. Most human beings want to do as they wish, and selfishly declare a right to do whatever they want without regard for the rights of others. It is surprisingly easy for us to turn a blind eye to others, even when they are right in front of us, for our own benefit. It is even easier for us to do so with those we don’t see—whether they be the poor in a neighborhood we avoid driving through, or a human child concealed in a woman’s womb.

Some might say—as I once did—that abortion, while morally reprehensible, should not be outlawed. But one of the central responsibilities of civil government is to protect the rights of the innocent and defenseless of their societies. And life is, indeed, a civil right as well as a moral right:

  • The U.S. Declaration of Independence declares in its second paragraph that all men are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
  • The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution declares that “No person shall . . . be deprived of life, liberty, or property. . . .”
  • The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares in Article 3 that, “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”

Two people having a discussion of politics or morals must begin with a basic mutual recognition that human beings have a right to exist. Without that mutual recognition, there is no baseline from which to discuss and compromise on other issues. One who starts from a position that life is sacred cannot be reconciled with one who starts from a position that life is disposable for reasons of convenience.

This is why the Catholic church teaches so strongly that abortion is an intrinsic evil that is virtually never acceptable. This is why it is such a scandal that a Catholic institution would reward a man, even a President of the United States, who cannot state unequivocally that human beings have a right to live. This is also why even supporters of abortion rights generally concede that abortions should be reduced and minimized in our society, even if they can’t admit of its fundamental wrongness. The moral truth of the issue is written on our hearts, and it is time that we start listening.

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.