Civility, courage and conviction at Notre Dame

Rev. Wilson D. Miscamble, C.S.C., Faculty Contributor
Civility is in vogue at Notre Dame these days.  On campus we have had panel discussions exploring how to improve civic engagement with less partisan rhetoric.  This year’s university forum, “A More Perfect Union: The Future of America’s Democracy,” aims at fostering civil discussion of national political issues.  And almost all of us have seen one of those ubiquitous posters of our university president asking students to “Take the Pledge” – that is the “Notre Dame Pledge for Virtuous Discourse,” which encourages students to engage in respectful dialogue.

In this Notre Dame is by no means unique.  Public appeals to civility have been voiced regularly throughout American history, including during periods when political discourse was far fiercer than anything experienced today.  Nonetheless, in the wake of the eye-rolling, laughter, and dismissive interruptions that characterized Joe Biden’s performance in the recent vice presidential debate, it is good to be reminded of the importance of civility for democratic dialogue.

True civility, however, is not to be mistaken for saccharine niceness.  True civility assumes vigorous exchanges of views about matters of importance.  A local example of what I mean was the robust debate over Truman’s use of the atomic bomb held on campus last year in which I had the good fortune to engage two capable interlocutors, Professors David Solomon and Michael Baxter.  Each put forth strong arguments that were often diametrically opposed to mine. (Some Rover readers might recall it.)  We disagreed sharply, and our strong criticism reflected those disagreements.  Yet we managed to do so in a civil fashion, which meant that none of us tried in any way to inhibit the others from expressing honestly held views.

Regrettably, not all advocates of “civility” follow this course.  Some appear to use their advocacy for civility as a cover to stifle genuine debate, especially over important issues.  This is false civility because it becomes not simply a vehicle to prevent serious discussion but also a weapon to use against one’s political foes.  Sometimes, too, civility serves as a refuge to disguise the fact that its advocates want to avoid taking tough public stands on difficult issues.  Sadly, present day Notre Dame provides evidence of these practices.

Let me give one example.  Late last spring, 154 Notre Dame faculty responded to a powerful homily given by Peoria Bishop Daniel Jenky in defense of religious freedom against various actions affecting the church at both the national and state levels.  In his homily, Bishop Jenky quite accurately gave four instances of governments – those of Bismarck, Clemenceau, Hitler and Stalin – that “tried to force Christians to huddle and hide only within the confines of their churches.”  He suggested further, also rightly, certain parallels with recent actions by the Obama administration and an Illinois state government, which had imposed unacceptable terms on the workings of certain Catholic social service agencies.

Did the offended faculty members react by writing a civil note to Bishop Jenky contesting his view?  Hardly.  Their ire up and their blood presumably boiling, they instead falsely and publicly accused Bishop Jenky of “ignorance of history, insensitivity to genocide, and absence of judgment.”  They further demanded that he resign as a fellow and trustee of the university.  They in no way, however, addressed the substance of Bishop Jenky’s legitimate concerns.  So much for measured, careful, and respectful dialogue!  The faculty petition was an effort to silence a church leader and expel him from the Notre Dame family.  The irony here apparently is lost on some of the signatories who still present themselves as monitors of “civility” on campus.

In reality the threats to civility and genuine dialogue these days come mainly from those determined to limit and restrain the expression of views grounded in religious convictions or that defend the valuable work of religious institutions.   Fr. Jenkins himself has said that dialogue with the Obama administration proved fruitless when seeking relief from the HHS mandates that require that employers and institutions provide health insurance covering abortifacients, sterilization and contraception even when the employers deem these to be morally wrong.  Notre Dame’s experience in this sad episode is but part of a larger, dangerous effort to restrict religious freedom and to assault conscience rights and protection.

Last month the cardinal archbishop of Washington, D.C., Donald Wuerl, pointed out that an “increasingly bold, ideologically driven and progressively intolerant secular humanism” is intent on driving religious voices out of the public square.  The evidence abounds far beyond the HHS mandate issue and touches important matters like sexuality, marriage, discrimination laws, healthcare policy concerning abortion and end of life issues, and foreign aid.  For example, one might ask the president of Chick-fil-A if he would like to articulate again (and in a civil manner!) the historical Christian view of marriage so that he could risk his business interests being threatened anew by the mayor of Boston and his cohort.  Or the chief diversity officer at Gallaudet University, who noted the irony that she was suspended for having a diverse view — she signed a petition in support of traditional marriage.

Even views that are not religiously based but which might support traditional Christian views are targeted, including in universities where academic freedom supposedly prevails.  For example one might ask the sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, Mark Regnerus, what his experience of civility has been after he had the audacity to conclude after careful research that “adult children of parents who had same-sex romantic relationships, including same-sex couples, had more emotional and social problems than do adult children of heterosexual parents with intact marriages.”  It has been reported by our distinguished faculty colleague Christian Smith that Regnerus was “smeared in the media and subjected to an inquiry by his university over allegations of scientific misconduct.”  Where were the civility-monitors who came to his aid or pleaded for respectful dialogue from those who tried to have him fired?

Especially in these circumstances of hostility toward traditional values, Notre Dame must demonstrate real leadership and exhibit courage in defending religious liberty and the rights of conscience.  As the leading Catholic university, we have a special obligation to articulate fundamental church teaching on the dignity of each human person and the right to life of the unborn as well as on the sanctity of marriage.  Notre Dame must avoid tepid engagement on these now controversial issues.

Father Jenkins deserves credit for launching a lawsuit in defense of religious liberty against a president on whom he bestowed an honorary degree.  What concerns me, however, is his recent problematic statement that his “deepest conviction” is to find a “way to talk to one another in ways that are respectful and reasoned.”  This view seems grounded in the squishy notion of “epistemic humility,” including even “about truths believed to be revealed,” which he offered in a talk at the Aquinas Institute at Emory University in 2011.  It certainly resonates with his commencement address at Wesley Theological Seminary in May of 2012, in which he elevated “respectful discourse” as a crucial end dependent upon deep convictions being expressed as “an effort to persuade.”  Yet, Notre Dame’s recent experience of failed negotiations with the Obama administration surely suffices to reveal the limits of this rather unrealistic approach.

Whoever wins the presidential election in November, one thing is certain: the challenge to religious liberty, and especially to the freedom of religious institutions to pursue their appropriate missions, will continue. The temptation for Notre Dame will be to lay low in this conflict and perhaps confine itself to bland admonitions that debate be conducted with civility.  Such a course puts a rather skewed tolerance as the highest good, ignores any claims to objective truths and neglects the moral obligation to stand up for those truths.  Although it will be preferred by those who strangely crave the regard of some of the main vehicles of aggressive secularism in politics, the media and the academy, this wimpish option must be resisted fully if Notre Dame is to fulfill its fundamental calling as a Catholic university.

It is unclear if Notre Dame will stand tall to this challenge. Will we fight publicly for the Church’s institutional freedom — or just leave it “to the courts” as the more tepid advocate?  Will we raise our voice in defense of traditional Christian marriage? Are we prepared to fight more openly and vigorously for the lives of the unborn?

Of late Notre Dame has mounted a careful public relations effort to display the range of worthy causes for which it is willing to “fight.”  All are commendable, and it is inspiring to see publicized Notre Dame’s efforts to combat natural disasters, to protect the health of children, and to rebuild war-torn communities.  How much more commendable and inspiring it would be if Notre Dame placed its prestige and influence in support of other important causes that are less likely to attract universal approval?  We will know that Notre Dame has moved to a new level of courage and conviction when it airs TV spots during its football games that testify to its willingness to fight for the lives of the unborn — and in defense of traditional marriage.
In the end, Notre Dame is confronted with a crucial decision: whether we wish at our very heart to be a Catholic university.  Will we be a place that pursues the truth and is willing to defend it?  Will we be a place that holds firmly that there are moral absolutes and that the defense of them trumps mere tolerance?  Will we be a place where genuine civil dialogue occurs in the context of true courage and conviction?

We can and should debate these issues in civility. But we should never invoke civility as a way to avoid taking a stand.

Father Bill Miscamble, C.S.C., is a professor of history, president of the University Faculty for Life, and a member of The Rover’s council of advisors.