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The Principle At Stake at Notre Dame

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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Here on planet "What About Me," principled people are so rare as to be oddities. Thus, it was a head-swiveling moment Monday when Mary Ann Glendon, the former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, quietly declined Notre Dame's Laetare Medal.

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Glendon -- a Harvard University law professor and a respected author on bioethics and human rights -- rejected the honor in part because Barack Obama was invited to be commencement speaker and to receive an honorary degree.

In a letter to Notre Dame's president, the Rev. John I. Jenkins, Glendon wrote of her dismay that Obama was to receive the degree in disregard of the U.S. bishops' position that Catholic institutions "should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles."

But the more compelling reason seems to have been Glendon's sense that she was being used to deflect criticism. As a mutual friend put it, "Father Jenkins thought he could use Mary Ann Glendon as a fig leaf."

In her letter, Glendon cited "talking points" issued by Notre Dame following criticism of the decision to honor Obama, including that:

(1) "President Obama won't be doing all the talking. Mary Ann Glendon, the former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, will be speaking as the recipient of the Laetare Medal."

(2) "We think having the president come to Notre Dame, see our graduates, meet our leaders, and hear a talk from Mary Ann Glendon is a good thing for the president and for the causes we care about."

Glendon, who is no mortal's pawn, decided she couldn't accept the award.

To non-Catholics, Glendon's act may seem of little importance, yet another feud within the church. Abortion, after all, is settled law, and Obama is the duly elected president. Clearly, the American people have moved on.

Or have they? And should we? Is there really ever a time when we should be comfortable with the ratification of abortion? It has always seemed to me that the truest form of feminism, as in the earliest days of suffrage, would be to hold abhorrent the state-sanctioned destruction of women's unique life-bearing gifts. Out of material expedience, we've somehow managed to convince ourselves that life is a mistake.

While one may prefer to preserve the legality of individual discretion (my own reluctant, if withering, position), it is nonetheless consoling that there are still those who relentlessly defend life's sanctity. The alternative, after all, is far less comforting.

Increasingly, however, even Catholic institutions can't be relied upon to hold the fraying line between our humanity and materialism. Another Laetare recipient, the novelist and physician Walker Percy, told the 1989 graduating class:


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