Friday, April 6, 2007

All or Nothing

Since I've just disavowed purveying links, let me call attention to an interesting story in today's "Inside Higher Ed" that touches on my own institution. According to this article, the Georgetown Law Center has now set a "new precedent" by refusing to fund a Law student internship with an abortion advocacy group (it should be noted that it subsequently helped the student find another source of funding, so its position is hardly as heroic or oppressive as appears at first blush). I found the response of the student - Jenny Woodson - to be particularly interesting:

"Woodson is upset with what she calls Georgetown’s inconsistencies. She said it is intellectually dishonest for the Law Center to claim its action is motivated by a desire to follow Catholic teachings.

"Woodson said further 'If Georgetown wants to be a Catholic University it has the freedom to identify as such,' she said. 'If the school wants to abide by Catholic doctrine it should do so consistently and prevent all activities the Church disagrees with. This includes prosecutors’ offices that impose the death penalty, gay rights organizations, political candidates and judges that hold positions that disagree with the Catholic church, military law organizations and human rights organizations (the majority of which support reproductive rights, as well).'"

While one can easily imagine that this decision will be pleasing to no one, it's not so much the disingenousness of Woodson's complaint that irks as much as the implicit argument at its core: be the fanatic institution we expect you to be, better for us to beat you with our secularist club. To be anything less is to be hypocritical. This is a common complaint by those who believe the Church's emphasis in opposing abortion overshadows its commitment to other "social justice" issues.

Typically, this complaint takes no cognizance of the prudential aspect of the Church's teaching (reflected accurately in the somewhat ham-handed but ultimately praiseworthy effort to protect life by the Law Center) and even the hierarchy of goals that can and should be achieved politically. I actually agree with Woodson that it would be good to see some more consistency, though some of that can be achieved by the Law Center making a moral argument that shows the deeper consistency of the Church's teaching in all these areas. After all, much potential good could be done by a serious Catholic working in a prosecutor's office, where opposition to the death penalty may prevent or at least discourage the practice. To make the moral argument, then, does not mean that funding must be cut off in every area where there is a potential conflict with the Church's teaching, but that the Law Center should make it evident what the Church's teaching is and encourage its students to embrace it (something one suspects doesn't happen often in the daily business of the Law Center). However, in the instance of abortion advocacy, where the victim is helpless, even voiceless (unlike, say, a condemned criminal), it is obvious that Church commends special efforts to protect life, which the Law Center has attempted to do in this instance. Not to see that this represents a "consistent" if prudential application of the Church's teaching is to reveal one's own fanaticism, not the purported fanaticism of the Church.


Thinking about this more, I have to concede that Woodson has a point in her following statement:

“When we apply to Georgetown Law, the most you hear about the Jesuit tradition is that [the school] supports students doing work in the public interest,” she added.

This rings true to me. Since joining the faculty at Georgetown, I've heard endless iterations of the way Georgetown's "Jesuit and Catholic identity" contribute to anodyne goals of social harmony and dialogue. Not once have I heard an administrator speak specifically of the way the that the University's Catholic "identity" should inspire students and faculty to strive to follow Church teachings. So, Woodson is undoubtedly correct in experiencing surprise that, quite suddenly it would seem, Georgetown would define its identity in such a specifically and identifiably Catholic manner. Should Georgetown wish act in accordance with specific Catholic teachings in the future, it would be well served to speak more directly and consistently about its commitment to those teachings in its daily life.


Anonymous said...

O.K., Patrick, you're getting the hang of it. Think of links as footnotes.

On the substance of your post, you're of course right. The young woman has a sense of social justice or public interest all her own, perhaps consistent (who knows?) but certainly not aligned with the Church, else she wouldn't have sought a Planned Parenthood internship in the first place.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Never before had I heard the argument that political expediency does and should dictate the relative importance of Catholic doctrine. Congratulations on being the first.

Anonymous said...

I'm guessing, then, that you've never read Aquinas. And, why would you, since you attend a Law School in the Catholic tradition? See, for instance, Aquinas's Summa, Q.95, Art. 2, Response to Objection 3: "The general principles of the natural law cannot be applied to all men in the same way on account of the great variety of human affairs: and hence arises the diversity of positive laws among various people." The art of determining the specific application and appropriateness of the natural law to specific situations draws upon the virtue of prudence. It's probably difficult for you to distinguish "political expediency" from prudence - I would recommend reading Aristotle's Ethics and Aquinas's Summa if you'd like to deepen your understanding, but I suspect you're not really that interested in learning the distinction. In any event, the idea that this post represents "the first" instance of an argument recognizing the importance of prudence and judgment in applying the Natural Law is a sad reflection on your education, and worrisome for anyone who purports to be learning about the law.

Anonymous said...

I’ll ignore the ad hominem attacks and just address your substantive points. First, while I commend you on taking a first year college philosophy course, the mini-lecture on Aquinas was unnecessary, both because I’m familiar with Aquinas, and perhaps more importantly because what Aquinas has to say about prudence is irrelevant to a discussion about political expediency--a discussion that I did not start. Deneen wrote:

“Typically, this complaint takes no cognizance of the prudential aspect of the Church's teaching (reflected accurately in the somewhat ham-handed but ultimately praiseworthy effort to protect life by the Law Center) AND EVEN THE HIERARCHY OF GOALS THAT CAN AND SHOULD BE ACHIEVED POLITICALLY.”

So you see, Deneen did me the favor of distinguishing between prudence and political expediency. Try to keep up.

So you see, Deneen did me the favor of distinguishing between prudence and political expediency. Try to keep up.