This Is My Son: Two Years Later

by James Matthew Wilson on May 12, 2011 · 28 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Politics & Power

This is my son

Devon, PA.  Two years ago this week, President Obama delivered the commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame.  Great numbers of students, faculty, alumni, and American Catholics protested the speech in the weeks preceding it, and some Notre Dame students would go on to boycott the official commencement ceremony and hold an “underground” one at the campus’s Grotto.

The question that stirred the discontent was a familiar one for American Catholics.  The Bishops of the United States had passed, several years previous, an instruction that forbade Catholic institutions from providing a platform for pro-abortion public figures, Catholic or not, as part of a document that sought to specify the responsibilities of Catholics in public life.  This document further suggested the impropriety of any Catholic institution’s seeming to endorse, or to appear as indifferent toward, public figures who reject or work to undermine the Church’s core moral teachings.  A responsibility to respect the sanctity of human life, and the prohibition of murder in any form including the surgical execution of the unborn are among those teachings.  Bishop D’Arcy, then of the Diocese of South Bend-Fort Wayne, and dozens of other bishops from other American diocese publically stated that Notre Dame’s invitation to Obama was at variance with these instructions.  It was a cause of scandal that a Catholic University should honor, and indeed award an honorary degree to, a politician whose record so baldly served the culture of casual slaughter. 

Several analysts — rightly to my mind — speculated that scandal was precisely what President Obama hoped to generate with his appearance.  For those who use that word in only its colloquial acceptation, to give scandal, means to behave in such a fashion that it would likely lead others into sin.  In hosting Obama with such fanfare, Notre Dame suggested to the world that it valued the Truth less than prestige; that it was all well and good to be a great Catholic university, but being a second rate Ivy in the middle of nowhere would be even better; that Church teachings may have a de jura force, but they do not affect how Catholics de facto should live their lives.  If one was looking for evidence that Catholicism at Notre Dame and in America was often clung to as a sentiment but ignored as a binding truth, one had only to turn upon the spectacle taking place at the most prominent Catholic University in the country.  Though there has not been a measurable Catholic bloc in the American electorate for a long time, the discension Obama created served to further dissolve its residue, undermining the authority of Bishops over their flock, and furthering the absorption of Christianity into the secular theocracy of liberal guilt and libertinism.  It proved a great opportunity for the self-righteous Catholic Left to speak of “open-mindedness” and to pontificate upon the full “range” of vital life issues that the Church engages — a range not reducible to just one “issue.”

The greatest metaphysician in the history of the world, St. Thomas Aquinas, would blush at such illogical mendaciousness.  Prior to all other questions of human life is the question of life itself, of existence  — to be or not to be.  And so, in fact, the range of questions to which the Church does give definitive answer ultimately is reducible to one question, insofar as the question of the sanctity of human life is prior to all others.  But that afternoon, it had to wait outside in the rain, as President Obama spoke about the importance of religion and dialogue to American life, and called for a “sensible” conscience clause for doctors and nurses who objected to the practice of abortion.  Fr. John Jenkins, the University’s president, did President Obama one better in his preening declarations that afternoon.  Altogether, it was a demoralizing spectacle, a bit like dancing on someone’s grave.

After CNN completed its telecast of the President’s address, most Americans forgot about the event — presuming they had noticed it in the first place.  But in the two years since, Notre Dame has not forgotten.  Bill Kirk, Notre Dame Associate Vice President for Resident Life and the only senior administrator at the University to protest the Obama visit, was fired just over a year later.  Few can doubt his dismissal after twenty-one years was an act of retaliation.  Most faculty who had protested the appearance were associated with the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture (which is to Notre Dame what the Chinese underground Catholic Church is the Chinese Patriotic Association).  According to the Center’s director, Philosophy Professor David Soloman, the University began the process of gutting the Center and will be forcing him to step down in the near future.  The Center is still operating now, indeed is scheduled to hold another of its amazing and joyful annual conferences at Notre Dame this November — but I have been told by several persons that this will be the end.  Soloman has further claimed that the University plans to replace him, giving him no say in his successor (he would have appointed his close associate, the Historian, Fr. Wilson Miscamble, reportedly).  Further, while the University has never directly financed the Center, it has said it would withdraw the support it did provide (facilities, etc.).  On the day of the commencement, eighty-eight persons were arrested when they attempted to hold a prayer vigil on the campus.  Notre Dame pressed charges of trespassing against them (among whose number was “Roe” of “Roe v. Wade”), and let the charges stand until last Thursday, when they were finally dropped.

Just this week, the Obama administration unveiled plans once again to attack conscience protections for doctors and nurses.  And many of the same secularizing “social justice” Catholics who cheered Obama’s appearance are playing tit-for-tat by protesting the invitation of House Speaker and Catholic John Boehner to speak at Catholic University’s commencement.  Their argument?  Boehner’s efforts — such as they are — to reduce the deficit will be borne “disproportionately” by the poor.  I would immediately side with those who would protect meaningful programs to reduce the effects of poverty, and certainly halving the size of the military and getting the federal government out of the retirement business would be more efficacious than trimming the ever more slim slice of discretionary spending in the federal budget.  But, let us be clear, it is in the nature of a state to make prudential decisions about how it will establish justice in a polity; it is not in the nature of a state to deny that certain persons have the nature of human being simply because they are very small and perforce silent.  There is, therefore, no equivalence between the positions of the Speaker and the President — a claim that a culture committed to dissolving all rational distinction does not comprehend and delights in flouting.  And so, for many persons, that shameful day did not simply fade into the past after Fr. Jenkins and President Obama had finished using each other for their own curiously related ends.

In the weeks leading up to the President’s appearance, my wife and I were making preparations for the birth of our second child.  Indeed, just before the commencement address, we saw that child for the first time through ultrasound imaging.  We were delighted to learn we were having a son, and I was all the more pleased because it gave me opportunity to begin the campaign to have him christened, James Augustine.  While I was ultimately victorious in that quest, it seemed a limited victory at a time when American Catholics and the University that I loved seemed to be abandoning the natural law with an almost obscene glee.

Discussing my family directly in writing is something about which I have long been riven with ambivalence, and yet on this occasion I felt a certain obligation: not to hold up my son as a mere protest against the events transpiring in those earliest days of his life, but as a witness to truths that others find it convenient and even profitable to deny.  It was my foolish hope that such a gesture, added to all the other more visible gestures of the previous weeks, might persuade the President to cancel his appearance.  It was my more well founded hope that the lasting image of my boy might stir someone grappling with their own ambivalence regarding abortion to see that it is not a “right,” not an “issue,” but a question of life and death, a question prior to all others we may ask.  When our society answers that question with prevarications and a scalpal, it convicts itself in the eyes of God — and in the eyes of its children.

With these retrospective thoughts concluded, I invite the patient reader to visit, or revisit, This Is My Son:

 

This is my son.  As you see him here, he has been alive for just about one-hundred-forty days and has, this and other ultrasound images suggest, my nose and not his mother’s.  I have not seen him any more closely than you have, have not held him in my hands, and will not hear him cry for about another one-hundred-forty days.  As you see him, he has just drawn his arm up across his left cheek, as if to shield himself from the ultrasound.  My middle brother used to make much the same gesture whenever Dad pulled out the super-8 camera with the spotlight fixed on top.

I did not learn anything from this ultrasound that I needed to know.  But now that I have seen him, I turn to my wife more often, reach my palm out for her belly, and try to feel him there, growing within her.  We have a name for him, and now I begin to associate a face with that name, small though it is, and shy though he is.  We begin now, also, to ask his older sister, as she looks at a picture book or tries to draw a circle, “Will you read to him?  Will you teach your little brother to draw?”

Such are the only changes this little picture stirs in us, because, without it, we already knew what sort of creature we were dealing with, what sort of creature we were waiting to encounter face-to-face: a child, a son perhaps, certainly a person.

The difference between this little son of mine and me, since it evidently will not be found in the shape of the nose, lies elsewhere.  It is legal rather than genetic.  I enjoy the full protection of the law.  He does not.

My government operates a labyrinthine bureaucracy that might someday figuratively kill my soul, but it works quite ambitiously to keep my body alive.  Its finances have more than once and indirectly also helped my son, young though he is, and yet that same government not only denies that to kill this child would be murder, but puts money in the hands of those who perform such killing with clinical efficiency.  Never is it more clear that the eyes of government, the eye of the law, are merely metaphoric, than in this fact, because no human being could look upon this picture and deny what he sees is a fellow human being.  And yet, that is precisely what my government says-and then turns away and leaves others to dig a grave, or rather, plow a landfill.  True, the functionaries of power occasionally gown their denials of the humanity of unborn children like my son in the taffeta frippery of phrases like “sweet mystery,” and they speak of the “terrible choice” of abortion without explaining why something “terrible” should remain a legal “choice.”  They unleash the dulcet strains and plangent tones of thoughtfulness and gravity on just those occasions when they most wish to avoid thinking altogether of the actual weight of the children their laws consign to the tin mass graves of trash cans.

All politics, Alasdair MacIntyre once said, begins with children.  It ends with them, too.  Discussing the Good or the “good life for man,” in that hoary Aristotelian phrase, has to it a certain ring of abstraction.  But, if we think of politics as the science of living in the world so that it resembles as closely as possible the kind of place in which we want our children to grow up, live well, and possibly grow old, then we will be talking about the same thing, only more concretely and more surely.  Granted this description of politics, what happens when the dominant political spirit of an age becomes so truncated that it not only “begins with children” but ends there too, precisely in the sacrosanct, legal permission for childrens’ murder at any point up to, and even significantly beyond, their “escaping” the womb?

Such a spirit is precisely what it appears to be.  It is the philosophical offspring of those who wish to escape from politics-more precisely, of those who would escape the responsibility of having to act with children in mind.  In cutting society and its politics adrift from children, such persons try to preserve themselves in a vague, Never-Never-Land, where adults may enjoy all the power and self-determination of their seniority while indulging their concupiscent desires without any sense of limitation, finitude, or purpose beyond a moment’s pleasure and the prospect of its iteration.  Open season on the unborn child, in other words, makes it convenient for adults to remain overgrown, over-libidinous children as long as they like-or at least as long as medical technology can prop them up.

Indignant hands with coat-hanger bracelets about their wrists immediately fly up in objection.  “This is not about immaturity and pleasure; it is about rights, sovereignty, and vulnerable women.”  This is all rubbish, of course.  If it were merely about “vulnerability,” one would have to presume some kind of preferential option for the most vulnerable.  Look at my son; is anyone more vulnerable than he and others like him?

It may indeed pretend to be about “sovereignty,” as in the ownership of one’s body.  But no one is owner of himself, and our bodies are constitutive of ourselves rather than inert property over which we exercise complete control.  Look again at my son.  He is unimaginable apart from his body, small though it is; and the course of his life will be measurable and intelligible largely in terms of that body’s growth, decay, loss, and resurrection.  And his total dependence on his mother does not indicate something unique, temporary, and inhuman.  He merely displays more obviously the dependence of all persons on others at all times.  If dependency and weakness are child-like, then none of us ever ceases to be a child in this respect, even though we should hope to leave behind childish things in others.  The murder of abortion and murder in the streets do not meaningfully differ; in each instance the fragility of human life consequent to its intrinsic dependence on others is on display because of an act of betrayal.

Finally, it cannot be about rights for at least two reasons.  Practically speaking, if the legal protection and support of abortion was consequent to the protection of a right, one presumes it must be one of the venerable ones like “liberty,” or one of more recent manufacture like “privacy.”  But how would one adjudicate between the claims of these rights and the equally venerable and more evidently foundational “right to life”?  One cannot adjudicate between the two, so long as one operates with a meaningful definition of the word “right” as something that intrinsically belongs to a person regardless of his condition or actions, something “inalienable.”  When rights are in conflict, there is no rational resolution within the system of rights.

Theoretically speaking, it cannot be about rights, either.  For the very concept of rights is a crude modern teratoma, a ghastly fiction, sprung from peculiar misapprehensions of natural law.  Human beings have found very little in their history that speaks of a right to life-for life is patently “alienable” from human beings and our cemeteries are everyday reminders of that alienation in spades.  We speak of “rights” to make ourselves feel more secure, less fragile, and less dependent on others, than in fact we are.  Gravestones inform us that it is not death that we are in a position to condemn or “forbid,” but only those who bring death about in certain ways.  They tell us that the execution of the guilty may be just, the slaying of the enemy in battle may be valorous, and that the slaughter of the innocent is always murder.  That portrait of my son does not silently speak of rights, but certainly proclaims a primeval innocence.  We would have to look elsewhere-to the clinics of Planned Parenthood, to the Supreme Court, to the Oval Office-to see other portraits that embody the evil of legislated, juridically sanctioned, administratively manufactured murder.

And so, the defenses of abortion are not arguments but prevarications.  They clothe murder-for-convenience in the knickers and periwigs of American liberal respectability. 

The violent arms of the “right to choose” fly up again.  Once more, they proclaim, abortion is not about convenience, but about the necessities of the desperate.  If that is the case, then let us look at this image of my son and speak, as W.H. Auden once did, of the “necessary murder.”  “Necessary” is a common word; do we know how to use it?  No such slaughter could be necessary, for that would mean it could not possibly be otherwise.  Are there really no alternatives to the killing of children in the womb?  What precisely is the evil so grave that such killing is its only counteraction?  Early and un-idyllic maternity? A strain on the budget?  The burdens of a deformed or retarded child?  “Excess population”?  The loss of a mother’s life in giving life to her child?  These are conditions of various gravity and sorrow, to be sure.  Some of them are the kinds of fictions in which those filled with avarice and who crave an ethereal worldly domination routinely trade.  Only one of them even approaches a condition of “necessity” and that one confirms in pain what we nearly all profess in comfort: love entails sacrifice.

In recent days, some in the media have decried the protests against President Obama’s invitation to Notre Dame, to deliver the commencement address and receive an honorary degree, as mere “political partisanship.”  To be sure they are correct, but not for the reasons they believe.  I am partisan in desiring the same legal protections for my son that I myself enjoy.  I am partisan in believing that the best world for mine and others’ children is one that welcomes them into life as sacred gifts rather than objects of property available for free exchange, manufacture, genetic strip-mining, domination, and elimination.  I am politically partisan in believing that, because all politics begins with children, any politician who would turn the arms of the law against the children for whom they should exist in service is one who participates in an intrinsic evil.  Any political official, but especially the one who holds the “highest office in the land,” should be viewed as such, and so long as he persists with the grave looks of eternally suspended “thoughtfulness,” with the sly smile of political maneuvering (“That’s above my pay grade”), or with the hunched shoulders of feigned ignorance (“Hey, we just don’t know when life begins”), he should not be honored, but denounced as a villain.

I pray that by some miracle President Obama will not speak at Notre Dame this weekend.  Some small degree of sincerity and self-knowledge should convince him to step aside.  But, so long as he does not, and so long as he stands at the podium or holds in his hands an honorary Doctor of Laws degree, so long will this picture of an actual child-my child-be here as a reminder of the kind of American his law, American law, does not protect.  Look at him.  He is a person.  And like every person, he is not merely a person, but this person.  And this is my son.

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Aaron Schroeder May 12, 2011 at 8:02 am

It’s worth noting that as Catholics opposed the President’s address at Notre Dame, they now stand in opposition to House Speaker John Boehner’s scheduled address at the Catholic University of America.

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/12/us/12catholic.html?_r=1&nl=todaysheadlines&emc=tha24

avatar John May 12, 2011 at 9:08 am

Actually, it’s not really worth noting. None of the people on that letter, you can be sure, protested Obama. And no one protesting Obama at ND would equate Obama’s record with Boehner’s supposed breach of Catholic Social teaching in cutting spending.

avatar John Gorentz May 12, 2011 at 9:16 am

If those are the same catholics who opposed the Notre Dame appearance, they are some very confused people who need to learn some community values. But the fact that either of those institutions would invite a government politician to speak shows some moral confusion.

avatar James Matthew Wilson May 12, 2011 at 10:42 am

Whether this recent Baehnor episode is worth noting or not, it had been my intention to do so in the essay. Unfortunately, as the midnight oil began to sputter, so did my mind. Per Aaron’s comment, I have gone back into the essay to modify and extend one paragraph, which I paste in here for those who have already read the essay’s benefit:

Just this week, the Obama administration unveiled plans once again to attack conscience protections for doctors and nurses. And many of the same secularizing “social justice” Catholics who cheered Obama’s appearance are playing tit-for-tat by protesting the invitation of House Speaker and Catholic John Boehner to speak at Catholic University’s commencement. Their argument? Boehner’s efforts — such as they are — to reduce the deficit will be borne “disproportionately” by the poor. I would immediately side with those who would protect meaningful programs to reduce the effects of poverty, and certainly halving the size of the military and getting the federal government out of the retirement business would be more efficacious than trimming the ever more slim slice of discretionary spending in the federal budget. But, let us be clear, it is in the nature of a state to make prudential decisions about how it will establish justice in a polity; it is not in the nature of a state to deny that certain persons have the nature of human being simply because they are very small and perforce silent. There is, therefore, no equivalence between the positions of the Speaker and the President — a claim that a culture commited to dissolving all rational distinction does not comprehend and delights in flouting. And so, for many persons, that shameful day did not simply fade into the past after Fr. Jenkins and President Obama had finished using each other for their own curiously related ends.

avatar Barry A. McCain May 12, 2011 at 11:18 am

“Pater dimitte illis, non enim sciunt quid faciunt.”

“Sancta Maria, mater Dei, ora pro nobis, nunc et in hora mortis nostra.”

avatar Willliam May 12, 2011 at 11:36 am

The author might want to do just a bit of fact checking on Bill Kirk’s firing. The conservatives and pro-life people assumed he was fired a year later because he protested the Obama speech. If some research had been done, it would have been determined that Kirk was likely fired because he had come under heavy fire from students, alums, parents of students for his draconian methods in how he ran the discipline arm of the school. I believe between the Obama speech and when he was fired, ND had hired a new boss that he was to report to and that new boss was not happy with the methods Kirk had used. Kirk has a terrible reputation with students and alums.

So it might be time to put the conspiracy theory about how ND fired Kirk for protesting Obama to rest.

avatar James Matthew Wilson May 12, 2011 at 12:31 pm

One further addition, beyond that I added above, William’s claims are certainly plausible. I know from my own days that Kirk was regarded as a disciplinarian, and others have voiced the possibility that he was forced out because of he held student athletes to the same behavioral standards as other students (which was very inconvenient for the football team’s roster).

However, while I have been readily able to find assertions by persons close to the situation (such as Soloman) that I echo in the essay, I have not found any similar source for the counter that Kirk’s firing was due to his job performance.

Thus, my claim cannot be regarded as a fact, but as an explanation of a fact; and I have more reason to accept that explanation than to accept others, even as I readily acknowledge that others are plausible.

Okay, that’ s it for me . . .

avatar Willliam May 12, 2011 at 1:40 pm

You think Soloman is going to give you an unbiased statement as to why Kirk was fired? How would he know the reasons for firing Kirk?

I would think that if you wanted to be fair and balanced that along with making the allegation Kirk was fired for protesting Obama’s appearance you would have also mentioned he had come under heavy criticism for his job performance and that he had a new boss who was reviewing his job performance. Those would be some key pieces of information that would allow a reader to form an opinion as to why he might have been fired. I suspect if I had not mentioned it here, you never would have shared those with your readers.

It’s obvious you want to get your digs in at Notre Dame, as evidenced by your football roster comment (in fact, Kirk came under fire not because he wanted to hold athletes to the same standards as regular students, but because in some cases, he made examples out of athletes to send a message to regular students. There were football players suspended for minor infractions that fellow classmates received minor punishments for).

I appreciate the message you are trying to send but your methods of going about it, and some subtle attempts to discredit Notre Dame with rumors being pushed as facts, seems suspect.

avatar Matthew H. May 12, 2011 at 1:47 pm

Kirk was not let go because he protested Obama. Kirk was let go because he was a poor and divisive administrator, who was excessively and maliciously punitive with students and reviled by alumni for his heavy-handed tactics on game weekends. Furthermore, his termination came as a result of some very secular political developments. He was under the political umbrella of a priest who was passed over for the presidency when Fr. Jenkins was awarded a second 5-year term. Shortly after he was passed over, that priest left his administrative position, and Kirk, who was not popular with others in the administration, was let go by the replacement. There is no “accommodationist” conspiracy here.

avatar John May 12, 2011 at 2:26 pm

You mean Bill Kirk, the upstanding man who at one time obtained a Notre Dame Security Police badge with his name on it and went around campus hassling students by pretending to be part of that force (last I knew impersonating a police officer is illegal). You mean the Bill Kirk who sat in the pressbox on game days with binoculars trained on the student section looking for the mildest transgression. You mean the same Bill Kirk whose name appears on no trespass notices issued to hundreds of alums, banning them from campus for life for alledgedly being inebriated (including multiple cases of these notices being given to people who blew a 0.000 on the breathalizer tests administered by the NDSP). No, I’m sure he was fired for protesting.

My guess is he messed with a couple of influential alumni. It was no coincidence that he was fired not long after Father Poorman was replaced.

avatar J.T. May 12, 2011 at 2:42 pm

Your one-sided characterization of Mr. Kirk is disingenuous and is not helping your cause. Beyond his unforgiving approach to student discipline, there is allegations (easily found via google search) suggesting that he has in the past unilaterally banned alumni from campus, conspired with security and police to harrass students, and impersonated a police officer. I admit I cannot confirm any of these allegations, but given my personal impressions of Kirk, I have no difficulty believing them to be true. “Back in my day,” as you put it, I had interactions with Mr. Kirk in my capacity as RA. I witnessed a man who exhibited no empathy for students, varsity athletes or not. In is not difficult to see why his new boss would want to see him leave.

Of course, you are free to believe whatever you wish about Mr. Kirk’s termination. In my view (and many others), you are calling a man a Martyr who is unworthy of the title.

avatar John Gorentz May 12, 2011 at 4:58 pm

There are reasons for firing people and there are pretexts for doing so. I’ve never before heard of this Kirk person, but I’ve also never heard of a firing for political reasons for which there wasn’t a justifiable pretext. Have you?

avatar Nathan P. Origer May 12, 2011 at 5:45 pm

For what it’s worth — although I hate to further such a trivial tangent —, my experience, as an r.a. who went to jail while on duty, suggest that Bill Kirk is, pace the things I see above that I heard as a student (both underclassman and r.a.), an incredibly fair-minded and reasonable administrator. A tough disciplinarian? Yes. “Draconian”? Not a chance.

avatar Aaron Schroeder May 12, 2011 at 9:18 pm

It doesn’t strike me that the point is whether the Catholics in opposition to one event are identical to those in opposition to the other. The point is that Democrats and Republicans seem to hold values essential to their party ideologies that, some Catholics think, are fundamentally at odds with doctrines essential to the Church. Whether those disagreeing Catholics are the same in each case is irrelevant. So, I think it really is worth noting.

As to Dr Wilson’s amended paragraph, when you live under a social contract, the proper limitations of government are determined by what’s agreed upon by ‘signatories’ to the contract. What this boils down to is that some think that the proper limitations of government are determined by some theory of natural law; other’s don’t. The point is that Dr Wilson seems to be attempting to exonerate the Speaker on the grounds that the Speaker’s ‘disagreement’ with the Church is part of the natural function of government. And by contrast, President Obama’s disagreement is about what the function of government is in the first place.

Yes, I agree that the distinctions in the differences that the President (as you’ve articulated them) and the Speaker have with the Church are categorical – though, no one claimed they weren’t. But on what basis proceeds the claim that a categorical disagreement is somehow worse than a non-categorical disagreement? The idea is that the Speaker and the Church agree on the nature of government, and yet disagree on the proper role of government in human affairs. On what grounds do you claim that such a disagreement is ‘better’ than the disagreement the President has with the Church on the proper function of government, in the first place? (Well, you didn’t say better; you said ‘equivalence.’ But then, equivalence in kind of disagreement wasn’t part of the equivalence argument in the first place. All that’s needed for the Speaker to be deserving of criticism is disagreement, full stop – not disagreement ‘of the same order’ or whatever as the President’s.)

And on top of that…I mean, I don’t want to get in to the abortion debate, but you’re completely straw-figuring the liberal position here. Liberals do not deny that fetuses are of the kind “human being.” What they deny is that being of that kind somehow affords a being moral status. On the liberal view, what affords you moral status is being of the kind “person,” a kind to which fetuses do not belong.

The point is that, insofar as you’ve rendered the liberal position falsely, of course it is not the proper function of government to engage in the sort of denial you’ve mentioned, and thus, obviously, the liberals disagree categorically with Church doctrine. But, if you render the liberal argument as liberals actually make it, it becomes a lot more obvious that the abortion debate, from the liberal perspective, is one about justice, since it is a question of what sorts of demands a being without moral status may make upon a being with moral status, and determining the judicial boundaries in this question is in the nature of a state. To put the point differently, the President and Church may well agree about the nature of government – just as the Speaker Boehner and the Church agree – while they disagree on the nature of moral status, and thus on how the state might act justly. Either way, the disagreement between liberals and the Church is no more categorical than the one between the Speaker and Church, and so on these grounds, the Speaker is as deserving as was the President of the Church’s criticism.

avatar John May 13, 2011 at 8:06 am

Aaron, I assume all your questions are directed at me. The point is that those liberals who think certain levels of entitlement spending on the poor is “essential to the Church” are wrong.

The basis on which I say that a categorical disagreement (human life and abortion) is worse than a non-categorical disagreement (scope of government spending on poor) is natural law and the teaching of the Catholic Church. Both hold true the sacredness of human life, with no exceptions. Neither hold true the sacredness of government spending on the poor, in any fashion. Your argument proceeds as if there is in fact a disagreement between Boehner and the Catholic Church on the scope of government. There is none. And even if there was some kind of disagreement, it wouldn’t be as stark as the one between Obama and the Church and natural law on abortion.

I can see why you did not want to get into abortion. So a “fetus” is a human being, but is not a person? When that makes sense, your last paragraph will mean something. But as it stands, one who disagrees with the Church on the immorality of killing an unborn human being is of course in a worse position than one who understands the Church’s treatment of the poor as not necessarily requiring a certain level of spending on Medicaid.

avatar Aaron Schroeder May 13, 2011 at 11:34 am

John, actually my questions were directed at Dr Wilson’s first reply, and so, much of what I wrote is not really relevant to your post. But if you’re willing to carry the petard here, that’s fine with me. Audaces fortuna iuvat.

First, my argument proceeds as if there is a disagreement between the Church and the Speaker because Dr Wilson’s amended response paragraph proceeds that way. And as I noted, the claim is subjunctive: if there is a disagreement between the Speaker and the Church, it’s no more categorical than the disagreement between the President and the Church. I derived the antecedent of the subjunctive claim from Dr Wilson’s comment – that he “would immediately side with those who would protect meaningful programs to reduce the effects of poverty” – that there was some meaningful disagreement between Catholics and the Republican platform, namely, with respect to the proper role of government in caring for the poor. If you don’t believe that claim, which I repeat, I made on the grounds that Dr Wilson made it, then not much of my response will not be relevant to you.

Subsequently, here’s how I see the geography of this argument. Maybe the Speaker disagrees with the Church, maybe he doesn’t. Suppose he doesn’t. Then, because Obama does disagree with the Church, Obama (obviously) is more deserving of criticism by the Church than is the Speaker.

But suppose the Speaker does disagree with the Church – a conclusion I drew from Dr Wilson’s comments. Then, either Boehner is deserving of the Church’s criticism or he isn’t. If he is deserving of criticism, then fine, what Dr Wilson said here (though, he might say more, if so induced; maybe he’d say Boehner is less deserving of criticism) is wrong, and the letter writers are right to protest. But if Boehner isn’t deserving of criticism despite disagreement with the Church, then his disagreement must differ from Obama’s, given that Obama’s disagreement warranted criticism.

How could that be, though? Well, Obama’s disagreement would have to be worse then Boehner’s disagreement – but, then, how could that be? This is, as I read him, Dr Wilson’s point. The Speaker disagrees with the Church on some question of how the State might act most justly – a prudential rather than (say) metaphysical question; the President disagrees on a question that is not apt for the State at all. Thus, by this I mean the disagreement is ‘categorical,’ and therefore, worse.

But issues remain, and this is where I’m pressing. First: Maybe categorical disagreements are worse, maybe they aren’t. If they aren’t worse, then the Speaker is as deserving of criticism as the President. If they are worse, some explanation for the ‘worseness’ of categorical disagreements is wanting. Response, thus far, has come there none. But second: even if categorical disagreements are worse, why think that the President’s disagreement is ‘categorical’ at all? Properly rendered, the liberal position constitutes appropriate grounds for decision by the state, and thus, the President’s disagreement with the Church is no more categorical than is Boehner’s disagreement with Church.

The burden of response, then, is two areas at least. You could say why you think that supposedly categorical disagreements deserve protest and non-categorical disagreements do not. Or, you could say why the proper rendering of the liberal position leaves it categorically distinct from the position of the Church, in a way that the Speaker’s disagreement is not categorically distinct. Answers to either of those questions, I think, would be interesting and fruitful.

***

And as for person-human distinction, in the words of George Grossmith, “I’m baffled that you’re baffled by it.” It’s not like it’s crazy, or senseless, to believe that what makes humans morally valuable is that we can think, believe, desire, have first-person perspectives, make arguments, etc. – in short, that we have a certain arrangements of psychological properties. But this non-non-senseless position just is the ground for the liberal position. Because lots of non-human things (aliens, sophisticated computers, etc.) could have psychological properties, and lots of human things could lack them (fetuses, the brain dead, etc.).

Anyway, whether that view is the correct one isn’t what’s going to be decided in the comments section to an FPR blog post. All I’m trying to say is that a lot of people can ‘make sense’ of the view.

avatar Dwight Lindley May 13, 2011 at 5:30 pm

Interesting comments all.

I don’t really care to respond vis-a-vis the whole Bill Kirk thing: there is obviously a lot more at stake for a lot of my fellow commenters (bitter memories of party crack-downs, allegiance to college football teams, etc.) than there is for me.

But I do have a question for Aaron. Don’t you think JMW is trying to address something like your person/human question when he makes his argument about rights? Your account of the liberal view of personhood makes it primarily have to do with legal rights, does it not? Certainly one needn’t accept JMW’s MacIntyrean argument against rights, and by extension against the primacy of the liberal account of personhood, but on the terms of his argument (which is what we’re talking about, right?), it seems that there still is a categorical difference between the Church’s view and the President’s. (If by “categorical,” we mean “direct, explicit, express, unconditional”–OED def. 1b) Obama subscribes to the view of personhood/rights you and JMW have layed out; the Church subscribes to a distinctly different one. The bishops, at any rate, seem to think it’s categorical.

Or have I misunderstood you?

avatar dave May 13, 2011 at 11:40 pm

“I am partisan in believing that the best world for mine and others’ children is one that welcomes them into life as sacred gifts rather than objects of property ” which reminds me of a conversation – one sided, I might add, with a good friend of mine who was talking about how the State had no right to intervene in a family, because, I think the argument went, the kids were the parents’ kids. I did not know what to say in response, so after my friend finished we all went back to work.

I still don’t know what to say about it; just curious. I believe an intact family to be the best environment in which to raise a child, but we exist within such a large spectrum. In many instances it is not best, and too often it is in fact a danger to the child. The question of ownership, or sovereignty, has always been one I can’t quite get my head around.

Most people I know do not talk about families with children who may be in, say, the juvenile justice system, in moral terms, but in economic. It seems to me the arguments are mostly about taxes, and what most people want is the lowest cost option. The thing is, in many cases that means the State intervening in the family as early in the child’s life as possible. It’s just much more efficient to straighten out a young kid. If we’re talking money, efficiency is important.

I say my kids are my kids out of convenience, but I’ve never really thought that way about them. I’m the container they outgrow, have outgrown. And to be honest, if I make it out for a run these days I feel kind of like a broken down peat pot. Anyway, that gift/ownership spectrum is making me think back to Polet’s piece about the BYU player – both pieces addressing this sort of communal dimension. That issue of ownership.

What I can’t see is a line that separates the State’s ability to regulate abortion from the State’s ability to intervene in a family. Either pro- or anti-, both sides seem to embrace a contradiction – overly simplified, that someone who is pro-life is less inclined to sanction State interference in a family, while someone who is pro-choice is more inclined to sanction State interference in a family.

As I wrote, I can’t really get my head around it. Feels like I’m missing something big.

Sorry for the digression – just been thinking about for a time.

avatar Jeffrey Polet May 14, 2011 at 7:56 am

Solomon would know in part because Kirk’s wife Elizabeth worked very closely with Solomon at the Center. I don’t know the exact reasons why Kirk was fired and neither, I suspect, does anyone else writing on these pages. But if you look at what has happened at the Center and those connected to it in the wake of the Obama protest, and you hear some of the behind the scenes stories, there is significant circumstantial evidence to suggest the administration of Notre Dame responded punitively. I took this to be the large point of James’ piece, which of course is a tangential point to his overall argument, and a legitimate point to make.

avatar Aaron Schroeder May 14, 2011 at 12:52 pm

Hi Dwight,

I think that the difference between Dr Wilson’s and the liberal position is a little deeper than rights v. natural law, although that difference rests on the deeper difference.

The deeper difference between the two positions is in how they answer this question: what is the nature of ‘us’? What are we most essentially? To paint with a pretty broad brush, the natural rights position proceeds on the grounds that we are most essentially ‘human.’ ‘Human’ is a natural kind term, a biological term, the proper functioning of which is defined by it’s biology and the social arrangements designed specifically to promote that proper biological functioning. Those definitions, as near as I can tell, just are ‘natural laws.’ The liberal, by contrast, believes that we are human, but that what we are most essentially are ‘persons.’ ‘Personhood’ isn’t easy to define, but most offer some kind of psychological definition – a first-person perspective, some collection of memories, some collection of propositional attitudes, etc. “Rights” just are the name for “things we deserve” in virtue of being persons.

Anyway, the point is that the deep disagreement is only secondarily a disagreement about ‘rights’ v. ‘natural law.’ Primarily, it’s a disagreement about the ways in which the different parties see the world – how they see ‘us’ in it most essentially. It’s primarily, then, a metaphysical – not an ethical or moral – disagreement. Or, that was how I was taught to read the difference.

As to my objection to Dr Wilson’s post, I was addressing the grounds on which he tries to exonerate the Speaker’s disagreement with the Church and impugn the President’s. He seems, on my reading anyway, to say that the Speaker and the Church disagree over a prudential question – how an agreed-upon definition of justice might best be realized – while the President and the Church disagree over a ‘metaphysical’ question – what is justice, and who gets it, in the first place? That, I suppose, is what I was trying to pin down with the term ‘categorical.’

I think that the crux of my objection though is in questioning why it is that categorical disagreements are supposed to be worse than non-categorical disagreements. But, more importantly, even if categorical differences are worse than non-categorical ones, I think there’s a way that the liberal position can be read such that its difference with the Church is not necessarily ‘categorical,’ and thus, as deserving of criticism as Speaker Boehner’s position.

Has that clarified – or, ahem, obscured – my response?

avatar D.W. Sabin May 14, 2011 at 3:20 pm

It seems quite obvious to me that the State, after erecting all manner of pseudo-pastoral protections for its oblivious charges would decide, in the fullness of time that said protections is damned expensive and hence, infanticide, rightly administered might be a fine cost saving enterprise. Couch said infanticide in notions of “liberty”…aka “rights” and one has all the makings of turning basic accounting into a political crusade.

The God of Modernity is Efficiency and if murder be entailed, so be it.

avatar djr May 16, 2011 at 1:57 am

Well, Sabin is one of the few to whom I believe the usual liberal complaint about the incompatibility of anti-abortion politics and anti-statist politics might, in fact, apply. So I will pass over his oddness and address a simpler point in response to Schroeder:

It is revealing that Shcroeder uses the phrase “natural rights” as though it were synonymous with “natural law.” It isn’t, and it isn’t precisely because of a difference between how “natural law” and “natural rights” theorists understand “us.” In short, “natural rights” theorists — and here I am thinking in particular of the tradition that stems from Hobbes and Locke, for all their differences — think of rights as something that belongs to individual human beings *as such*, i.e., precisely as individual human beings. The Lockean strain — here Hobbes was far more consistent and rational than Locke — further departs from the “natural law” tradition by treating “rights” not only as something that individuals possess just as individuals, bu as something that individuals have prior to their relations with others, and as something which justify claims of the form “A person ought not to be treated in this way” (Why not? Because he has a right not to be treated that way; QED). Thinkers in this tradition have not failed to exercise a great deal of ingenuity in devising theoretical defenses of the view; whatever else one wants to say of it, it is not at all identical to the more traditional “natural law” view.

On that more traditional view, if I have rights, it is only because others have duties to me. In the first instance, I ought not to be wondering what rights I have — what I can rationally demand that others not do to me or that others not fail to do for me — but what duties I have to myself and to others. It turns out, on this view, that because human nature requires for its flourishing that we live together in inter-dependence in community, we owe certain forms of respect and assistance to one another. You ought not to kill me not because I have some basic natural “right” to life that you would be violating by killing me, but because your ultimate end as a human being is not to be attained by killing other human beings, but by living a kind of life to which respect for others — including, as a minimum, not killing them on a whim — is a basic and internal requirement. In short, the difference between you and a lion is that a lion would flourish by killing and eating me, while you would harm yourself far more than you would harm me by doing the same.

The point is just this: the difference between the natural law and the ‘liberal’ view on issues like abortion is indeed a metaphysical one, but it is not for that reason any less an ‘ethical’ or ‘moral’ question; nor is the difference really where you have located it (at the alleged difference between a ‘person’ and a human being). It is, much more importantly, at the question of what it is to be a person, which is, in contemporary English, really just a lame substitute for ‘human being,’ however open a question it remains whether ‘human being’ is co-extensive with ‘member of the biological species homo sapiens.’

avatar Aaron Schroeder May 16, 2011 at 9:10 pm

To djr’s reply, I think this is going to become a game of inside-baseball exegesis pretty quickly here. Anyway.

I don’t see how what I wrote conflates a natural rights theory with a natural law theory. Indeed, I wrote that the deep disagreement between the liberal and the natural law theorist was only ‘secondarily a disagreement about “rights” v. “natural law,” indicating that I took the positions to be conceptually distinct – which I do think. And further, I don’t see how my construal of the natural rights and natural law positions differ significantly from your own construals.

The more important issue, though, seems to emerge in your last paragraph. You think that the deep disagreement between the rights theorist and the natural law theorist is not in that the rights theorist holds us to be persons primarily and the law theorist holds us to be humans primarily, yes? But rather, the two agree that we’re primarily persons, and indeed they agree that we’re primarily human. The deep disagreement emerges over whether species membership is to be taken as the definition of ‘human’ or whether ‘psychological being’ would suffice. Is this what you’re saying?

If so, I honestly don’t see where we’re differing. I’m saying that the rights theorist holds that we’re psychological beings primarily, and that the law theorist holds that we’re members of a biological species primarily. If this is what you’re saying, then we’re saying, in this instance, the same thing. But, you must have something more in mind, because I can’t see how this is anything over and above than a disagreement in the metaphysics of personal identity – and indeed, a metaphysical difference which leads to, and is thus presupposed by, ethical or moral differences.

[djr: I don't see how further discussion along these lines will prove germane to the original post. And while I find the discussion interesting generally, I'm not going to spend 30 - 45 minutes crafting posts for public consumption that don't further considerations introduced in the original topic, especially when several more are going to be necessary to get clear on just where you and I differ. Email me, though, at [email protected] if you're interested in a more detailed discussion of the issues we've introduced here.]

avatar JimWilton May 18, 2011 at 11:53 am

Congratulations on the birth of your son. I hope that he is well and driving you crazy, as two year olds will.

I respectfully disagree with your support of church doctrine on this point — unless the church is equally committed to excluding politicians who have expressed support for the death penalty. The death penalty, which involves direct state action to end life rather than state deference to moral decisions of individuals is, of course, a more direct and offensive legal position in terms of church doctrine or “natural law”.

Of course, if you exclude both supporters of abortion rights and supporters of the death penalty, you will end up excluding most politicians as commencement speakers. This may not be a bad thing. Maybe church policy should be just to stay out of politics altogether.

avatar Dom Watkins May 21, 2011 at 6:29 pm

The Obama / Notre Dame Speech was very polarizing. “Communion and Liberation” offered a statement around that time which for me speaks to the larger point beyond that polarization.

Read it here: http://beingornothingness.blogs.com/living/2009/04/communion-and-liberation-at-notre-dame-a-judgment.html

Test everything and hold on to what is good.

Excerpt:
For us faith is not an ethical code nor an ideology but an experience: an encounter with Christ present here and now in the Christian community. Christian faith gives us a freedom and a passion for living that express themselves above all in the form of questions as we face reality, and an inexhaustible openness to everything human. Political and ethical categories do not define us; our life springs from belonging to a fact, to a story begun and
carried forward by an exceptional Presence in human history…

An invitation to a Catholic university – an invitation to anyone, especially to the President of the United States of America – should be an invitation to encounter that history, that method of relating to reality, and that experience of life and freedom.

avatar James Matthew Wilson June 5, 2011 at 8:06 am

Update on the Center for Ethics and Culture: I have been able to confirm and get further detail on the claims I made in this essay regarding the Center’s fate. I have edited the essay to reflect that information, so it now reads thus:

According to the Center’s director, Philosophy Professor David Soloman, the University began the process of gutting the Center and will be forcing him to step down in the near future. The Center is still operating now, indeed is scheduled to hold another of its amazing and joyful annual conferences at Notre Dame this November — but I have been told by several persons that this will be the end. Soloman has further claimed that the University plans to replace him, giving him no say in his successor (he would have appointed his close associate, the Historian, Fr. Wilson Miscamble, reportedly). Further, while the University has never directly financed the Center, it has said it would withdraw the support it did provide (facilities, etc.).

P.S. From other friends at Notre Dame, I have news that the withdrawing of University support for the Center has left philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre without an office, but only the use of a cubicle over in Geddes Hall. I don’t mention this as further evidence of the ND administration’s malfeasance so much as a curious sight to imagine.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins June 11, 2011 at 5:35 pm

It is a fact that most Americans who identify as Catholics violate one or more church teachings. That has probably been true for most of the history of the church.

I agree that doctors and nurses who object as a matter of conscience to participating in abortion should not be coerced to do so, nor, most particularly, lose their jobs. There are plenty of doctors and nurses willing to perform the necessary surgery, to meet the needs of those patients who seek it. Further, if NO doctor or nurse is willing to perform the procedure, well, nobody has a constitutional right to require them to do so. A woman has a right to consult with her doctor, without the interference of the STATE in her decision.

I can sympathize with the idea that no church-affiliated college should invite ANY politician to speak on campus, as a consistent matter of principle. In the absence of such a consistent policy, President Obama has acknowledged that patriotic American citizens can and do hold differing positions on abortion, and that each has a right to their place in the public square. Notre Dame was simply acknowledging that this is so, not endorsing abortion.

As a matter of fact, President Obama has never endorsed abortion. There is no record that his wife, or any other hypothetical woman he hypothetically might have impregnated, has ever, with or without his support, had an abortion. In his personal life, he is the most highly moral pro-family president we’ve had in a long time.

avatar Eduardo August 19, 2011 at 3:33 pm

Here are two links which add perspective (to my mind at least) to the issues under discussion:

Catholic historian Garry Wills from 2007, ‘Abortion is Not a Religious Issue’:
http://www.latimes.com/features/religion/la-op-wills4nov04,0,2121538.story

Former Notre Dame Dean, Mark Roche, from 2004. Still pertinent if names are changed.
‘Voting Ones Conscience, Not Ones Religion’:
http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/11/opinion/11roche.html

Best to all!

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