It should give the officials at Notre Dame pause that a professor at Harvard Law School (among the most liberal of all law schools) will refuse to accept an award from Notre Dame based on principle.  And yet that is exactly what Professor Mary Ann Glendon has done, who writes as a Catholic:

First, as a longtime consultant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, I could not help but be dismayed by the news that Notre Dame also planned to award the president an honorary degree. This, as you must know, was in disregard of the U.S. bishops’ express request of 2004 that Catholic institutions “should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles” and that such persons “should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.” That request, which in no way seeks to control or interfere with an institution’s freedom to invite and engage in serious debate with whomever it wishes, seems to me so reasonable that I am at a loss to understand why a Catholic university should disrespect it.

Professor Glendon shows grace and class in her letter rejecting an honorary award from Notre Dame (I encourage you to read it in full), and she appreciates that a graduation commencement speech is not the place for her to criticize the president or turn the event into a public debate.  She could have accepted the award and used her acceptance speech as an opportunity to occupy the bully pulpit, but instead she decided it wasn’t worth it.  I would hope her example persuades Father Jenkins at Notre Dame that it also isn’t worth it to grant President Obama an honorary degree in the first place.

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I haven’t posted about MLK in a while (click here to see some of my earlier posts in this series).  But continuing that series…this part of the Letter includes a somewhat provocative idea:

I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action. I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers in the South have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still all too few in quantity, but they are big in quality.  . . . .

But despite these notable exceptions, I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.

When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.

In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.

I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

I find those last sentences most interesting.  It appears that MLK is criticizing the religious leaders of invoking a type of “separation of church and state” as an excuse for inaction and deference to unjust laws.  In other words, the religious leaders were suspending their moral sense and blindly following the human law without evaluating the (im)moral force of that law. 

It is indeed interesting that MLK impliedly blasted the supposed “separation of church and state”, as it is popularly (though not constitutionally) conceived, noting that it serves as a convenient excuse for covering up injustice and immorality. 

I won’t get into the legal problem of the “separation of church and state” here (but I will note that if you think the phrase is in the United States Constitution, or if you think the popular idea by the same name was invoked by the framers of the United States Constitution, further investigation might be warranted on your part).  Nevertheless, the divorce of moral truth and civil law has occurred on various occasions over the years, and it is a common theme in our current societal discourse on morally controversial topics.  When someone invokes the phrase, look to see if there is a moral question being swept under the rug, and think about whether that question deserves an answer before political decisions are made.

I went to a Catholic law school.  At my commencement, the invocation involved a priest, a rabbi, and a muslim cleric (stop me if you’ve heard this one) who prayed for “the day Jesus, Mohammed, and Abraham join hands and welcome their children into the kingdom of heaven.”  I was ducking for cover, expecting fire from heaven.  I think they found a way to offend every true believer of each of those three religions, as each of those religions lays claim to being the exclusive truth. 

I came with a very skeptical eye toward commencement anyway, knowing the worldviews of those in charge of the ceremony.  However, if I were graduating this year from a Catholic school that actually took itself seriously as a Catholic school, and Obama was invited to the commencement, I’d be inclined to respond the way these students are:

In defense of the unborn, we wish to express our deepest opposition to Reverend John I. Jenkins, C.S.C.’s invitation of President Barack Obama to be the University of Notre Dame’s principal commencement speaker and the recipient of an honorary degree. Our objection is not a matter of political partisanship, but of President Obama’s hostility to the Catholic Church’s teachings on the sanctity of human life at its earliest stages. Further, the University’s decision runs counter to the policy of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops against honoring pro-choice politicians. We cannot sit by idly while the University honors someone who believes that an entire class of human beings is undeserving of the most basic of all legal rights, the right to live.

I would encourage the students to protest the commencement ceremony openly.  The tragic thing in all this is that the families of the graduates are cheated out of what should be a time of unmitigated celebration.

About a month ago, I read this, and have been ruminating about it ever since:

 If you are a Christian, you cannot rationally believe in equality, except in the belief that all are fallen short of the glory of God. If you are a rational materialist, you cannot believe in equality except for that of the grave. If you are, on the other hand, an irrational materialist like most self-proclaimed rational materialists are, you probably believe very firmly in equality despite the fact that there is almost infinitely more evidence for God and the immaterial than for the idea that two human beings are, or could ever be, equal in any way.

Now, I think these assertions go way too far, but they do challenge me to back up my heretofore assumed and undefended notions of “equality”.  I think human beings are of equal value and worth to God, though Christians of various theological traditions might disagree with that. 

I also think humans are deserving of “equal rights”, not in the positive rights sense (“I deserve to be given X”), but in the negative rights sense (“the government ought not interfere with my freedom to X”).  But are all people equally deserving of such negative rights?  A felon has forfeited his right to freedom of movement, and thus we as a society, through our government, deprive him of that freedom by throwing him in jail.  Because he forfeited that right, he is no longer deserving of it.  Since there will always be criminals, there will never be complete equality in the right to be free.  On the other hand, even for prisoners, I might argue we all have a right not to be wantonly abused or treated inhumanely, and that right applies to all persons “equally”.  Still, I find it a provocative notion that equality might not exist, since America was founded on the notion that all men are “created equal”. 

I will add that those who pursue equality of results (as in, economic equality through redistribution of wealth) are playing a fool’s game.  Such equality cannot and will not ever exist, and I have yet to see any person, even the most liberal, try to determine the average amount of wealth per person (whether worldwide or nationwide) and donate everything they have beyond that amount to the poorest among us.