Editor’s Note: The following piece was sent as a letter to University President Father John Jenkins, CSC, on December 7, 2016.
Dear Father John:
Some of my colleagues are alarmed over the possibility that Notre Dame might confer an honorary degree on Donald Trump. Allow me to indicate what I think may be on their minds—and mine. First, as was argued in 2008, Notre Dame would be honoring the presidency and not the person who holds the office. For the most part, I think this distinction is legitimate, yet the two cannot always be separated. In this case, there is no moral equivalency between Obama and Trump. Obama is the family man personified, whatever one may think of his public policies. What you see in him, his wife, and daughters are no less than integrity, decency, and the highest standards of personal morality. Trump’s private life, by contrast, has been a moral disaster—no need to list the details—not to mention his nasty divorces and behavior towards women.
Second, opposition to Obama in 2009 was largely based on his support of Roe v. Wade. But on nearly all other public policies with right-to-life and social justice implications, Obama was (is) pretty much in sync with Catholic social thought. Trump’s views, however, on most issues involving such implications are largely in conflict with Catholic thought. One thinks, for example, of climate change, gun control, nuclear weaponry, torture of suspected terrorists, death penalty, global hunger, and the Iran nuclear deal, and this is only for starters. On related issues such as immigration, right-to-work laws, and banning Muslims from entering the United States, Trump is also in opposition to positions taken by episcopal and papal teaching.
Opposition to such teaching should not of course be the sole standard for conferring honorary degrees. After all, we live in a morally pluralistic society and, as Father Ted so often remarked, the Catholic university’s job in today’s world is to build bridges, not to burn them. But Trump’s massive repudiation of the Catholic moral tradition should probably give us pause in determining whether we should honor him.
Donald P. Kommers is a Robbie Professor of Law and Political Science Emeritus.