November 25, 2009 // Local

Scholars gather for ND conference on moral issues of the day

By Ann Carey

NOTRE DAME — For the 10th consecutive year, the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture drew hundreds of scholars from across the country and abroad to its annual conference that focuses on the crucial moral issues of the day.

This year’s conference theme, “The Summons of Freedom: Virtue, Sacrifice, and the Common Good,” was inspired by a talk Pope Benedict XVI gave at the White House last year on his visit to the United States. Over 100 papers on a wide spectrum of topics were presented and discussed by more than 400 participants at the three-day conference Nov. 12-14.

Getting the conference off to a lively start was the keynote address by Josephite Father John Raphael, a 1989 Notre Dame graduate who is principal of St. Augustine High School in New Orleans and an active pro-life leader in the African-American community.

Father Raphael spoke on “Building a Bridge over Troubled Waters: Inviting African-Americans into the Pro-Life Movement.” He said that bringing the African-American community into the pro-life movement has the potential to turn the pro-abortion tide and make America a truly pro-life country, but the road to wed the pro-life and African-American communities is difficult.

“The great divide” that exists between the two communities is not based on fundamental disagreement about the morality of abortion, Father Raphael said, but rather “exists at a deep and complex level,” mainly because of an inability to communicate with each other and misunderstandings about each other.

“A bridge must be built because African-Americans need the pro-life community, and the pro-life community needs African-Americans. Our future is being destroyed by the genocidal magnitude of abortion, and pro-lifers are saving the African-American communities from extinction,” Father Raphael said.

Another topic attracting great interest at the conference was the decision by Notre Dame to invite President Barack Obama to be 2009 commencement speaker and recipient of an honorary doctorate in law. Three Catholic professors from other universities presented papers critical of the invitation and Obama’s speech: Francis Beckwith, professor of philosophy and Church-State Studies at Baylor University, Gwen Brown, professor of communication at Radford University and Matthew Franck, professor and chairman of the Department of Political Science at Radford.

Beckwith said that Notre Dame could have honored the president and still have protected its Catholic identity by inviting him to speak at commencement, but not awarding the honorary degree. If asked why the degree wasn’t being offered, Notre Dame would have had the opportunity to explain that it would be inappropriate for a Catholic institution that respects life to give an honorary degree to someone who has such a track record of denying legal protection to the unborn, he observed.

Beckwith added that the Obama-Notre Dame controversy is a symptom of a deeper problem in Christian higher education: “a loss of confidence in theological truths in both inside and outside our ecclesial communities.

In their joint presentation in the same session with Beckwith, Brown and Franck, who are husband and wife, made similar observations. Brown said the Obama speech met generic requirements of a commencement speech, and it succeeded politically, but failed ethically. The president “smuggled” in an argument about the relationship of faith to reason, Brown said, and he depicted the pro-life side as unreasonable.

“For Obama, reason and faith are not mutually supportive, but rivals and antagonists,” Brown said.

In his analysis of the Obama speech, Franck said that Obama deftly used references to “common ground” on “moral issues” like poverty, AIDS and the death penalty, but depicted abortion as “just another cause-of-the-month that some people choose,” in spite of the fact that abortion is “the only one of these ‘moral issues’ that entails the deliberate and targeted killing of innocent human beings with the sanction of the law.”

Brown concluded their paper by asking: “What lesson did they (graduates) learn on their last day under the tutelage of Our Lady’s university, courtesy of the president of the United States? They learned how to make a bad argument look reasonable and even acceptable if it is cloaked in the robes of rhetoric. … This was, by ethical standards, an abysmal last lesson.”

Among the other prominent scholars giving papers at the conference were Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute, Alice von Hildebrand of the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project, Thomas Hibbs of Baylor University and Russell Hittinger of the University of Tulsa.

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