By Ann Carey
NOTRE DAME — The theme of the Feb. 8-12 Ethics Week at the Mendoza College of Business was abortion, a hot topic on the campus ever since President Barack Obama was invited to be the 2009 commencement speaker and receive an honorary doctor of laws degree. According to promotional material for Ethics Week, the theme “Ethics, Morality and the Life Issue,” was chosen “to encourage/facilitate meaningful and reasonable dialogue about an important issue (abortion) that created tensions in the spring of 2009.”
Thus, some people expected that the first two speakers at the lunchtime Ethics Week talks might revisit those spring, 2009 tensions, given that those speakers were Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades, one of the bishops critical of the Obama invitation, and Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, the Notre Dame president who invited Obama. However, neither Bishop Rhoades in his Feb. 8 talk, nor Father Jenkins in his Feb. 9 talk, specifically addressed the Obama controversy — at least not directly — though the topic came up briefly during a question-answer session after Father Jenkins’ talk.
In his presentation, “Ethics, Morality and Religion,” Bishop Rhoades noted how Ethics Week and its focus tied into the Catholic mission of Notre Dame, and he thanked the university for this contribution to the Church and society. He noted that the discussion on abortion starts with a fundamental message of Scripture: The dignity of human life created in the image and likeness of God.
“Our faith teaches, and reason confirms, the transcendent dignity of the human person, and respect for this dignity is the basis of a truly just society,” he said. “The whole community, including the business, economic and political communities have a responsibility to safeguard and promote human life and dignity.”
Since the most fundamental human right is the right to life, abortion is “a serious moral disorder,” Bishop Rhoades said. However, abortion proponents tend to justify their position in the name of individual freedom, he continued. Thus, it’s important to consider the meaning of freedom from an ethical and religious point of view and examine the legality of abortion in a democratic society. On these issues, he said, he’s guided by the writings of Pope John Paul II, particularly his encyclicals “Evangelium Vitae” and “Centesimus Annus.”
As Americans, we cherish and promote freedom and democracy at home and abroad, the bishop said. The democratic system insures the rights of citizens to make political choices peacefully, he continued, whereas a totalitarian state denies truth, denies the rights of people and governs by sheer power that exploits people.
“So, the Church values the democratic system; we as Americans are rightly proud of it,” Bishop Rhoades said. “At the same time, we must be wary also in democracies of embracing the fundamental error of totalitarianism: The denial of the transcendent dignity of the human person.”
Our founding fathers recognized and stated in the Declaration of Independence that there are objective truths and inalienable rights, as well as laws of nature and God that governments are meant to serve, the bishop continued. However, the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision violated these most noble ideals from the Declaration of Independence, he said.
Bishop Rhoades quoted Pope John Paul II, who wrote in “Centesimus Annus” that “Authentic democracy is possible only in a state ruled by law and on the basis of a correct conception of the human person.” If there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, the bishop said, ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. History demonstrates that a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism, he noted.
For a democracy to survive and flourish, he continued, there needs to be an authentic and solid foundation and the explicit recognition of human rights, the most important of which is the right to life, Bishop Rhoades said. Human rights are not a concession by society or the state, but rather belong to human nature and cannot be modified or destroyed by the state.
Pope John Paul II warned against idealizing democracy to the point of making it a substitute for morality or a panacea for immorality, Bishop Rhoades said.
“The value of democracy stands or falls with the values which it embodies and promotes,” he said.
The bishop asked how our great democratic nation had come to the point of legalizing abortion and moving in the direction of legalizing euthanasia and assisted suicide. Roe v. Wade has erroneously led people to accept that if something is declared legal, it is therefore right, he observed, for laws and Supreme Court decisions have a moral influence in forming people’s opinions.
“And that’s why the educational efforts of the Church and Catholic universities like Notre Dame are so essential and important,” Bishop Rhoades said.
The root problem is twofold, he continued: Ethical relativism and a distorted notion of freedom in our society and culture. The freedom to kill an innocent human being is not true freedom, he said, but rather a license to do evil.
“For Catholic universities, like Notre Dame, to be truly Catholic, means witnessing to the truth, believing in this objective moral law, that there are universal truths,” Bishop Rhoades said.
The urgency of this problem is demonstrated by contempt for human life in the name of freedom of choice, he said. This is a result of ethical relativism — the refusal to acknowledge the “enduring, absoluteness of the value of human life and its inviolability” — and the result of a distorted view of freedom, for freedom finds it’s fulfillment in the truth.
Bishop Rhoades concluded his talk by saying: “May the University of Notre Dame and each one of us bear witness to the truth about the dignity of human life and be committed to truth, love and authentic freedom.”
In a question-answer period following the bishop’s talk, the Obama controversy was alluded to, but not articulated, when a faculty member asked Bishop Rhoades how to balance the freedom of discussion at the university level with the Catholic mission of the school. Bishop Rhoades responded that freedom isn’t limitless, and he noted that Catholic institutions would not tolerate someone like an anti-Semitic who degraded other human beings in the name of freedom.
Catholics “must correct, not tolerate those who propose views that are not respectful of the dignity of human life,” Bishop Rhoades said.
Other speakers in the ethics week series were Bobby Williams, director of the Women’s Care Center Foundation, speaking on support for mothers, and a panel consisting of Mendoza faculty Ken Milani, Brian Levey and Jessica McManus, speaking on “Long-Run, Legal and Lingering Implications of Abortion.”
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