Dialogue at Notre Dame -- A Lighthouse and a Crossroads

Taken together, the speeches at Notre Dame's commencement outlined the possibility of dialogue between people who who are animated by a commitment to moral truth --who are not moral relativists --but who may not always agree about what the truth requires in particular instances. Abortion urgently exemplifies, but does not exhaust, the topics on which urgent moral discussion is taking place in our society.The disagreement between Notre Dame and its critics, in my view, is NOT about abortion; the University's position on abortion was entirely clear throughout the event. The disagreement is about how to engage with those who honestly disagree with its stand on abortion. Do we commit ourselves to mutually respectful dialogue? Or do we limit ourselves to prophetic indictment?The commencement defended, I think, a theology of engagement -- and defended itself against the proposition that engagement and dialogue are tantamount to relativism. Notre Dame is both lighthouse (a beacon of truth) and a crossroads (where people who have different perceptions of truth can meet for mutually respectful discussion).(The text is under the videos, for those who prefer to read the speeches.Below I excerpt brief passages that highlight the theme; the excerpts are given in order of the speaker's appearance on stage yesterday.)1. Father Jenkins"When we face differences with fellow citizens, we will be tested: do we keep trying, with love and a generous spirit, to appeal to ethical principles that might be persuasive to others or do we condemn those who differ with us for not seeing the truth that we see?The first approach can lead to healing, the second to hostility. We know which approach we are called to as disciples of Christ."2. President ObamaThe question, then, is how do we work through these conflicts? Is it possible for us to join hands in common effort? As citizens of a vibrant and varied democracy, how do we engage in vigorous debate? How does each of us remain firm in our principles, and fight for what we consider right, without demonizing those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side?Nowhere do these questions come up more powerfully than on the issue of abortion. As I considered the controversy surrounding my visit here, I was reminded of an encounter I had during my Senate campaign, one that I describe in a book I wrote called The Audacity of Hope. A few days after I won the Democratic nomination, I received an email from a doctor who told me that while he voted for me in the primary, he had a serious concern that might prevent him from voting for me in the general election. He described himself as a Christian who was strongly pro-life, but thats not what was preventing him from voting for me. What bothered the doctor was an entry that my campaign staff had posted on my website an entry that said I would fight right-wing ideologues who want to take away a womans right to choose. The doctor said that he had assumed I was a reasonable person, but that if I truly believed that every pro-life individual was simply an ideologue who wanted to inflict suffering on women, then I was not very reasonable. He wrote, I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words.Fair-minded words. After I read the doctors letter, I wrote back to him and thanked him. I didnt change my position, but I did tell my staff to change the words on my website. And I said a prayer that night that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me. Because when we do that when we open our hearts and our minds to those who may not think like we do or believe what we do thats when we discover at least the possibility of common ground. Thats when we begin to say, Maybe we wont agree on abortion, but we can still agree that this is a heart-wrenching decision for any woman to make, with both moral and spiritual dimensions. So lets work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions by reducing unintended pregnancies, and making adoption more available, and providing care and support for women who do carry their child to term. Lets honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded in clear ethics and sound science, as well as respect for the equality of women.3. Judge NoonanThats the rub when your moral vision is clear and the other fellows is cloudy. You become impatient, the more frustrated if the other fellow is a friend an old friend or a potential friend. Why cant he or she see it? To satisfy that frustration by shunning or denouncing your unseeing companion will accomplish little beyond expressing your own exasperation. Help your cause by hurting your friends? No. What does work is prayer, patience, empathy, and the love that encircles the other person, a fellow creature attempting to do what he or she sees as right.

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.

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