Rice, BC and Gotcha!
Mark Sargent May 5, 2006 - 4:10pm
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