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Rice, BC and Gotcha!

As Grant posted earlier today, there is a kerfuffle at BC regarding two distinguished professors and authorities on Catholic social teaching (CST), who have objected, on CST principles, to BC's decision to award an honorary degree to Condoleeza Rice at the university commencement. This news has prompted all sorts of negative and positive reactions to their objection, including a mini kerfuffle over at Mirror of Justice, where a professor and an alum of St Thomas' law school have gone at each other a bit over the question (see link in Grant's post below). The situation at BC is the kind of commencement day nightmare that we spineless academic administrators usually try to avoid. As someone responsible for the speakers and honorees at our law school graduation, I strive mightily ( or supinely?) to avoid all candidates who would generate the faintest whisper of controversy. While not by nature averse to confrontation, I believe that commencement is our graduating students' day, and I don't want it marred by demonstrators or bad feeling. The rest of the year, we'll take on all the controversy and disagreement our people want, and let the chips fall where they may. But not at commencement. So, I sympathize with my opposite numbers at BC. That being said, I have some reactions. First, I believe that Hollenbach's and Himes' principles are soundly grounded in CST principles. They are not importing some secular political bias into their position. One may disagree with their application of those principles here, but the principles they are applying are the real thing. Second, critics on the right who chastize them for lodging a Catholic objection to Rice when they have (supposedly) not objected to honoring people with public pro-choice positions, are playing an unpleasant and unproductive game of "gotcha!" I should add, however, that there are those on the left will do the same thing when the right objects to honoring a pro-lifer; they will say "where were you when someone who supported torture or war was honored?" This raises the question of what the "gotcha" proves. What difference does it make if Catholic Professor A objects to a speaker compromised by warmongering but not to one compromised by their position on abortion (or same sex marriage).? What difference does it make if Professor B objects to the choice proponent but not the warmonger? I guess the conclusion we are supposed to draw in both cases is that the Professor is hypocritical in the selective use of Catholicism to support the objection, because the professor has not applied Catholic principles consistently, at least with respect to potential commencement honorees. There are several problems with this conclusion. First of all, why should everyone be expected to object actively to anything that raises Catholic concerns? That seems to me to be expecting too much. Furthermore, if the Catholic objection they raise is in fact well-grounded, do they have to pass some kind of Catholic "purity" test before they are entitled to speak or be heard? The gotcha game is another manifestation of the struggle over what it means to be authentically Catholic, and another means of throwing the insufficiently authentic out of the tent. Second, "gotcha" seems to be a way of avoiding confrontation with a Catholic objection that makes the critic uncomfortable. Those on the right may not want to face the fact that Rice represents an administration whose approach to war raises very grave concerns under CST. Conversely, those on the left who do not want to acknowledge the reality of Catholic teaching on abortion, may deflect the issue by asking "where were you on war, torture etc.?" I have no objection in principle to challenging Catholics, particularly Catholic intellectuals on both sides of the cultura/political split, with the unevenness of their concern for these different issues, but I don't like that challenge being used as a rhetorical ploy to avoid dealing with the real issue before us right now: are Hollenbach and Himes correct in their claim that a Catholic university that honors Catholic teaching on war should not honor Ms. Rice?--Mark

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Dean Sargent:I enjoyed reading your post it is a fresh way to look at this BC debate. However, I have a question for you: my school, Fordham University, has announced that Hardball host Chris Matthews has been selected as commencement speaker. Critics have argued that Matthews is pro-abortion and is not in line with Church teaching, and thus should not be invited to speak on our Catholic campus. I personally feel that Matthews, a Jesuit college graduate, is quite acceptable, regardless of his opinions on abortion. Yet one element of the BC scandal continues to be on my mind: shouldnt the importance of Condi Rice be taken into effect? Regardless of my opinion on the war, I would personally prefer the Secretary of State of the United States of America to speak at commencement versus a pundit on MSNBC it brings a greater sense of respect to the speech. Although I understand that speakers are chosen to be non-controversial, does celebrity/national significance also play a role in the selection process?Thanks and I look forward to hearing from you. Joe MarutolloFordham University 07

In this huge world, you cannot find someone who is not pro-abortion? I f you want to highlight a pro-war position (not something I would) could you choose otherwise. In short, this is a huge planet, there are lots of worthy people. Why focus on these limited few? To be honest, this honorary stuff is only occasionally mildly interesting. And Rice will not make it more so. Catholics should choose their honorees well and carefully and maybe avoid those who are always in the spotlights anyway. You can't tell me there aren't inspiring dedicated people out there, and I have no sympathy for suggestions that it is always hard to identify who is giong to "headline" the show.

I think that's exactly right, Mark. I also think we need to take into account area of expertise. To borrow from economic analysis of law, there are "externalities" involved in mounting a public protest. CST is centrally the area in which Hollenbach and Himes write and teach. It makes sense that they would lead a protest on a speaker that touched on that area, and not on other areas.

I think Joe brings up a good point. Doesn't Rice's status as Secretary of State make a difference? On the same grounds, I expect, you would have to reject President Bush as a graduation speaker. Whether we like their policies or not, these people are filling important roles of public service in our country (and I say this as someone who abhors many of the policy decisions in question).Nevertheless, the faculty at BC have done us a great service, by highlighting the selectivity and inconsistency by which various individuals and groups (often claiming Catholic motivations, but really having political motivations) fashion their lists of public sinners who are unacceptable commencement honorees. This just highlights the decidedly unCatholic compartmentalization of the Church into "pro-life Catholics" and "social justice Catholics," since an honoree can be acceptable while being in support of or complicit in war, torture or the death penalty, but not abortion. Despite the fact that certain life issues are getting more emphasis, shouldn't all violations of the dignity of human life be equally objectionable? Are the deaths of innocents as the result of an unjust war to be considered less serious than the death of innocents by means of abortion, simply because there's "wiggle room" in the Church's teaching on war? Though I don't doubt the convictions of Himes, Hollenbach and others, I expect that at least part of their motivation was simply to make this point. Selective outrage is becoming more and more tired and transparent on both sides of the ideological fence.Perhaps some Catholic universities might take a stand by invoking a moratorium on all giving of honorary degrees because, as Mark points out, it is the graduating students' day, and shouldn't it be remembered as a day of joy, not one of controversy?

What the "gotcha" game proves is a lack of intellectual integrity and seriousness.Any academic who claims to use Catholic social thought as a reason to deny Condoleeza Rice an honorary degree, while having no problem with giving the same thing to pro-abortion politicians, simply isn't acting on the basis of Catholic social thought.The person is acting on the basis of a secular ideology.What's even worse is the fact that Catholic social thought isn't pacifist. While it holds that abortion is inherently morally wrong, it doesn't hold that war is always and necessarily morally wrong.Thus the claim that a particular war is morally wrong must always rest on prudential judgments. The notion that theology professors are any better than anybody else at making these judgments is suspect in the extreme.So please, let's be honest here. Some leftist professors don't like Bush, don't like the war and don't like Rice. It's really that simple.

I would like to pick up on one of John McAdams' points: the issue of "prudential judgments." At least in the faculty conversations I've experienced at Boston College, I think insufficient emphasis has been given to that question.The authors of the Letter to the Faculty have questioned the moral legitimacy of the initiation and subsequent conduct of the war on ethical grounds rooted in the values of the Catholic moral tradition. That assessment, of course, is a prudential judgment on their part -- a judgment, they claim which is lent support by the Church's Magisterium. These are certainly weighty arguments that should have a distinctive bearing on the moral judgments of American Catholics. Bearing on, not determinative of -- for we are not relieved of the necessity of forming our own prudential judgment.But there is a further question of prudential judgment that needs to be engaged. It is to what degree Secretary Rice bears responsibility for the formulation and pursuit of actions deemed immoral. Here conscientious people may even more clearly differ.I have a good friend, a former colleague of Secretary Rice, who thinks very highly, not only of her intelligence, but of her integrity. Though he deems the involvement in Iraq an unmitigated disaster, he does not assign the blame to her that he does to the Vice President and Secretary of Defense. For him Rice actually represents a moderating influence in the Administration.So a series of "prudential judgments" that we all undertake, which hopefully do not distance us from principles, but apply those principles in the concrete and ambiguous realities of actual situations. And our conclusions may, in good faith, differ.A final ambiguity: an item of the Letter that has not received much attention. Its authors refer to an article which Secretary Rice wrote in the journal, Foreign Affairs, vol 79 (Jan./Feb. 2000). They find sentiments expressed there to be "in disturbing contrast" to a core Catholic conviction regarding "the common good of the entire human family."However, the Chair of the Political Science Department at Boston College, in a respectful rejoinder, challenged the accuracy of the authors' reading of the Rice article.So we are dealing not only with prudential judgments, but with correctness of interpretation. A complex situation that might give rabid partisans on either side pause.

Robert, I find it difficult to excuse Rice on any account. Colin Powell has been damaged severely by this lying administration. One cannot take the office of Secretary of State and disassociate oneself from this preemptive war. Further, I am continually amazed how Christians, let alone Catholics, can support this kind of a war. Followers of Christ, though too often engaged in war, ignore the Founder who gave his life for peace. The leaders of Christianity since the fourth century have waged war too often.A Martian who studies Jesus and his followers would marvel at the difference. Erasmus speaking of his own times which were not as terrible as our own times may have some pertinent counsel: "And although war is so inhuman that it befits beasts, not men, so insane that even the poets imagine that it is unleashed by the Furies, so noxius that it spreads moral corruption far and wide, so unjust that it is normally carried on best by robbers, so impious that it is utterly foreign to Christ, still they neglect everything else and do nothing but wage war. Here you see rickety old men demonstrate the hardiness of a youthful spirit, not upset by any expense, not wearied by any labors, not the least bit disturbed by reducing all human affairs, laws, religion, peace to utter chaos. Nor is there any lack of learned flatterers who call this patent madness by the names zeal, piety, fortitude, having devised a way to unleash cold steel into his brother's guts without any offense against that highest duty of charity which according to Christ's precept, he owes to his fellow Christian." From The Praise of Folly.Maybe it's time to call war like it is.

The theologians object to honoring Condoleeza Rice because her diplomatic approach is in "fundamental conflict with Boston College's commitment to the values of the Catholic and Jesuit traditions and is inconsistent with the humanistic values that inspire the university's work." How many traditional Catholic figures would survive such a test? Would Bernard of Clairvaux find a place in the honor roll of the Boston College theology department?

Good question Patrick. Bernard of Clairvaux had many good qualities. But he was shameful in supporting crusades and his theory of just war causes problems even today as EWTN will sponsor programs lauding the Crusades and that the Rosary saved more crusader's lives than Saracens. Maybe Abelard should have won the debate between him and Bernard. The Enlightenment might have happened earlier.http://www.ewtn.com/library/MARY/BERNARD2.htmOnward Christian soldiers.

CST = Catholic Social Teaching: major mistake. And probably sinful, when it is used as a weapon. When ever are we going to be able to get rid of that kind of petrification? This is an ancient Roman bad habit: a sort of fossilization; crystallizing fronds, leaves, frogs, butterflies, things that were once living and free.And the Muslims made a world religion out of that sort of attitude. E.g.: In Judaism and Christianity, it was a good thing, helpful on the way, to give alms, to go on pilgrimage. In Islam, it becomes a bound duty. Yuk.Much better, the expression Catholic social thought, which allows for a lot of free thinking, and a lot of dissent. Let's revive those frogs! And let's tell litmus-test Catholics to grow up.On Condi Rice, after whom I believe an oil tanker has been named -- after all, it is the energy industry that is calling all the shots in this government -- , I would have no problem hearing her speak to me at my graduation.But then again, I think graduation ceremonies are of extremely little importance, unlike many many parents, and perhaps a few students. What is sacred about concluding one's studies is closing that last blue book, submitting that last research paper, waiting for the hopefully passing grades. The cap-and-gown stuff is fluff; and it is a waste of good moral time to get all in a kerfluffle (sic, so usually spelled) about who the celebratory speakers will be. So long as they will be interesting, fine. They are hardly supposed to be anyone's flagships, regardless the celebrated nautical name.