Monday, April 27, 2009

Mary Ann Glendon Declines Laetare Medal

Stunning news this morning: Mary Ann Glendon has declined to receive the Laetare Medal at the upcoming graduation ceremony at the University of Notre Dame. There had been much speculation about what she might have to say in the presence of President Obama. We'll never know - unfortunately, perhaps, though one cannot gainsay the reasons on which she based her refusal to attend.

A passage in her letter is a not so veiled criticism of my own institution, Georgetown University, and others like it: "Finally, with recent news reports that other Catholic schools are similarly choosing to disregard the bishops’ guidelines, I am concerned that Notre Dame’s example could have an unfortunate ripple effect." Given the recent prominence of the news that Catholic symbols were covered during a recent speech by President Obama at Georgetown, and more recently the conferral of an award upon Vice President Biden at an event hosted by Georgetown's Law Center, Mary Ann Glendon's concerns strike very close to this home. Are any Georgetown's administrators paying attention?

There is also one part of her letter that really ought to focus the attention of leaders at Catholic institutions:

Then I learned that “talking points” issued by Notre Dame in response to widespread criticism of its decision included two statements implying that my acceptance speech would somehow balance the event:

• “President Obama won’t be doing all the talking. Mary Ann Glendon, the former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, will be speaking as the recipient of the Laetare Medal.”

• “We think having the president come to Notre Dame, see our graduates, meet our leaders, and hear a talk from Mary Ann Glendon is a good thing for the president and for the causes we care about.”

While Glendon does not emphasize one direction that these statements could be taken, the tactic is clear and widespread: it is enough for Catholic institutions to have some voice on campus that "represents" the Catholic view, and the very presence of such a voice is sufficient both to signal the soundness of the institution's Catholic identity as well as permitting the inclusion of any and all non- or even anti-Catholic voices. It's as if what's being said is: "Don't worry about all that stuff that indicates we are not Catholic - we have Program X over here, or Professor Q over there." What this thin and bankrupt argument seeks in fact to obfuscate is the absence of an actual dominant and defining Catholic culture and governing philosophy on campus. What it seeks to veil is that a large number of "Catholic" institutions seek to be indistinguishable from their secular and disaffiliated counterparts with a light sprinkling of some Catholic program or symbols that purport to show their distinctiveness. Meanwhile - as the student guides of the campus tours at Georgetown always seek to point out to prospective students and their families - we all know that this school is not REALLY Catholic - ::wink-wink:: - so don't worry. It's all just for show.

Will there be any official at the Notre Dame graduation who will approach the occasion in anything like the way President Bollinger of Columbia University did when Columbia hosted Iran's President Ahmadinejad? Hosting a political dignitary does not mean that university officials must be uncritical of the stances of any such dignitary. Of course, Notre Dame's occasion is different because it is a graduation - indeed, for this precise reason Mary Ann Glendon decided to decline the Laetare Medal - but even at such a ceremony there could be some brief words by Notre Dame's President or other official noting Catholic teachings that are wholly at odds with various of President Obama's stances. It might actually become what University leaders claim to embrace - a "teaching moment," one that would encourage "critical thinking." One suspects that it will rather be a fawning love-fest, and the absence of Mary Ann Glendon means that a moment for real "critical thinking" will have been lost.

1 comment:

Notes from the Underground said...

With the question of President Obama speaking at Notre Dame, I should think that one question which needs to be answered is how much a commencement speaker's views can diverge from Church teacher before they can be classified as unbecoming someone delivering a commencement address at a Catholic university. (E.g. Does there have to be a categorical difference in the ethical prescriptions of the speaker and the Church before the speaker is barred from speaking? Is it more important if the speaker's views are widely published? Or, at the very least, should the speaker definitely be Catholic? etc.)