Thursday, April 9, 2009

Post No. 105: Should the Pope Be Permitted to Speak at a Public School Commencement?


We chose the title appearing above to have a little fun, and also to stimulate some thought about an issue about which many appear concerned.

President Obama was invited to receive an honorary degree, and to be the commencement speaker at the University of Notre Dame. It is a private Catholic university.

Because of the President’s previously stated positions on abortion and embryonic stem cell issues, some are calling the invitation an error on the University’s part. Some have even suggested that it be withdrawn.

It has been argued that the University should be open to political engagement and encourage intellectual freedom.

Others claim that the school should not honor the Church’s most formidable opponent on these sensitive issues.

What say you and why?

Does it matter that this is a private institution instead of a public one?

Does it matter that this is a religious institution, as opposed to one which is not?

Does it matter that this is a Catholic institution as opposed to a Protestant institution?

On a broader scale, should the administrations of institutions of high learning, whether they are public or private, discourage the participation, in any manner, in school functions and activities, of individuals whose views they deem controversial or unacceptable?

Finally, although we posed the question in jest, if the University of California at Berkeley, or M.I.T. extended an invitation to the Pope to speak at its commencement, would we have the same furor, albeit for different reasons?

42 comments:

  1. Should any of the pedophile priests be allowed to speak or participate in any of the University's activities?

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  2. You mean to tell me that this is the first time ever in the history of this university that it has had a speaker whose views were contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church?!

    The Logistician facetiously, I am sure, asked whether the Pope should be allowed to speak at a public school. On a serious level, should some public or secular institutions deny the opportunity to speak to religious leaders?

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  3. While I applaud the notion of treating this subject "lightly," to too many people this is an example of a so-called "priority" issue. The fact that we spend so much time debating silly arguments speaks to the reason we are such a divided society. (Though, thankfully, the nay-sayers are an increasing minority.) This subject reminds me of another important argument: "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" My answer: "Bah, Humbug!" (with tongue in cheek)

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  4. to too many people this is an example of a so-called "priority" issue.

    The priority issue is, of course, not Obama per se, but abortion. To many Catholics this is a priority issue, indeed. They see legal abortion as being essentially no different than the Holocaust.
    The issue here, as I see it, is: should a major university stifle intellectual freedom (a secular value, but a crucial one) in the service of a sectarian religious doctrine? And, if the answer is "yes," what are the implications for Notre Dame as a university?

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  5. Thanks Dan, and welcome back. This issue for us on a primary level is the invitation. The issue on a secondary level is the invitee. The issue on a tertiary level is the views of the invitee or what that person stands for. We're not quite sure how the issue of the "views," despite their importance and significance, gets ahead of the "invitation" in the analysis.

    This is not to suggest that the significance of the tertiary factor might not trump the theoretical stances at the first two stages. However, it just seems that from an analytical perspective, some order in the "argument" either for or against ought to be followed.

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  6. We're not quite sure how the issue of the "views," despite their importance and significance, gets ahead of the "invitation" in the analysis.

    Inviting the POTUS to be your commencement speaker is not an "issue." The fact that the institution is Notre Dame and the POTUS is not a Catholic is not an "issue." The fact that the POTUS is on record, both rhetorically and in terms of his voting history, IS the "issue."

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  7. On the record as pro-choice, that is. Mea culpa.

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  8. For every invitation to speak at some university's commencement, there seems to be some protest or controversy. Whether the speaker is Condoleezza Rice, the president of Iran, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, President Obama, or the Pope someone will be unhappy. The real issue, I think, is whether a school has the right to invite anyone it chooses, regardless of the invitee's image.

    I think it does.

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  9. But this isn't a political issue, or an issue of "image"; it's an issue of intellectual freedom.

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  10. Rodak, maybe to you but the controversy has little to do with intellectual freedom and everything to do with the polarizing issue of abortion. And that is a political issue.

    As for intellectual freedom, I said I am in favor of it. Any university should invite anyone they choose. Any student who disagrees with said speaker should simply sit on their hands during the speech or not attend. They are welcome to make their positions known in letters to the editor of the school paper, in orderly protests outside the ceremony, or by their absence (it isn't mandatory to attend, I don't think).

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  11. If it were the student body wanting to revoke Obama's invitation, I would not be concerned in the least. But the students apparently mostly want him to come. It's some of the "powers that be" raising the fuss. It is, therefore, an institutional issue, which makes it an issue of intellectual freedom.

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  12. Btw, since when does a "polarizing political issue" not qualify for protection under the rubric of intellectual freedom? You were all about the 1st amendment when it was a case of funding the political speech of politicians and their financial backers.

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  13. Rodak, do you read what I write?

    This is what I wrote:

    The real issue, I think, is whether a school has the right to invite anyone it chooses, regardless of the invitee's image.

    I think it does.


    It is not any of the "powers that be" that are raising this issue or calling for Notre Dame to rescind the invitation. Basically, it a couple of Catholic Right to Life groups that are trying to get some kind of sanctions against the university. Beyond that, it is the stuff of pundits. I believe a few American Bishops have said they would not attend the commencement on principle. Do they not have that right to refuse to attend?

    Where's the problem here? A tempest in a teapot, I think.

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  14. Yes, I understand. Let me ask you, then, what your opinion of the whole affair will be if Notre Dame caves to the pressure and revokes Obama's invitation? Should the abortion issue trump the right of the POTUS to be heard, and the university community to hear him, at a world-class institution of higher learning?

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  15. We are in agreement with Douglas that the a school administration has the right to invite anyone it chooses to honor and speak at its commencement ceremonies. That being said, that administration must answer to some "higher authority," in some respect, whether it be to church headquarters, a board of trustees, a state university system, and potentially to its students. Whether it stands its ground when there is a protest arguably bears on its status, independence, and power.

    The Logistician wathced last year as his former Contracts professor, Lee Bolllinger, reeled from the invitation at Columbia to invite the President of Iran. This is a man who did not make that decision lightly, and without regard for its complexity and long-range ramifications. In the law, there is a concept of that is frequently discussed, namely steering far wide of the danger zone. If we make decision makers overly cautious about making decisions, then we potentially discourage them from making decisions that might be novel, and actually good for society.

    That being said, perhaps it is better to let them make the decision, and depending on the reaction, have to deal with the fallout, whatever that may be.

    We're not quite sure that "every" invitation is met with some type of protest Douglas, although we would suspect that there will always be a segment of the schools's population which will be disappointed.

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  16. fact is this is a private institution. They can invite who they want.

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  17. The question is not one of "rights." Nor is it a question of whether they should invite Obama, or not; they've already made that decision, and invited him.
    The question is, again, not one of "rights." What the rights are is clear.
    The question is, instead, one of principles. Are the principles of intellectual freedom--the ability of scholars to hear all sides of absolutely any issue, without interference--primary at a world-class university, or not? Is it an institution of higher learning? Or is it one big, right-wing, degree-granting Prayer Breakfast?

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  18. Rodak, I do not answer hypotheticals lightly. Not since I got in quite a bit of trouble in my first year in the Navy answering one. I treat them like minefields. If Notre Dame caved to pressure, I might lose any respect I might have had for the institution. But that depends upon what pressure they caved to. This is a private university, not a public one. They are a Catholic university, supported by the church. That means they have a duty, an obligation, to follow the tenets of the religious institution which they serve. Therefore, I can understand the issue that is actually at stake here and it isn't "intellectual freedom". It is "Does Notre Dame stay faithful to church doctrine or does it stay faithful to the purpose of a university?" Are they mutually exclusive?

    There is another issue. One that arises when an American president or presidential candidate speaks at Liberty College. That issue is separation of church and state. Is Obama violating that separation by speaking at particular university? And why isn't that being brought up?

    I think the reason is obvious. The issue at the core of this fuss is abortion.

    I also don't believe that the right of the POTUS to be heard would be infringed if the invitation was withdrawn. He has ready access to a microphone anytime he wishes. This would not be censorship of any form. I would call this a red herring.

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  19. Log, I can see we are pretty much in agreement here. I think every notable speaker causes some controversy. Otherwise, would they even be notable in our current version of America? And, if not notable, why invite them? I believe in Freedom of Speech. I also believe in the right of institutions to invite to speak anyone they choose. And that includes Kim Jong Il, if one wished. Or David Duke. I think student protests against speakers are silly when they demand a speaker be uninvited. I think they are offensive when they heckle and catcall and turn their backs on speakers they do not like. I think that protesters are basically just seeking attention. So I tend to ignore their outrage and the "point" they are allegedly trying to make. I suspect I am not alone. Protest is theater. It has been theater since the 60s. It loses its power when it is done at the drop of a hat. Be respectful, offer an alternative speaker elsewhere after or during the event (hard to do the latter regarding Commencement, I suppose), but don't disrupt. It's rude and reflects badly on you.

    Rodak spoke of the president's "right to be heard". I am not sure what that is. People do have a right to speak but people also have a right not to listen. Am I infringing on someone's freedom by ignoring him? I don't think so. But if I interrupt them, if I try to disrupt the speech, then I am infringing on their right to speak.

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  20. For the most part Douglas, we try avoid taking positions with respect to most subjects, or advocating a particular point of view. We simply seek to examine the different ways to look at issues, and stimulate thought. As we've said on many occasions, we really do not care where people come out at the end of the analysis, just that they go through the process as objectively and diligently as possible.

    On those few occasions when we express a particular point of view, we consider it to be non-partisan in nature, and constitute “Common Sense.” It will generally be consistent with our view that advancing the long term positive interests of society, instead of approaching issues from a selfish, short term perspective, is preferable. We believe that all of us should be on a quest to improve ourselves and acquire more knowledge on a daily, continuing basis, so that we can make contributions to society, preferably in the fields of science, innovation, creativity, and invention. We like to think that we increase awareness. We believe that the collective power of everyone trying to improve society is a very powerful force.

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  21. Log, then you should not say:
    We are in agreement with...

    Or, alternatively, you should allow us to say something like:
    I can see we are pretty much in agreement here in response.

    It is difficult enough communicating strictly in text, without any facial expression, body language, or changes in tone or verbal emphasis. To add different rules for you and us is to add confusion when less is needed.

    Perhaps I was only saying "that makes sense to me also."

    Sheesh!

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  22. Douglas: Going as many different places as possible is part of the exercise. The changing of rules makes one more agile on one's feet. Imagine a pitcher throwing the same pitch every time the batter steps in the batter's box.

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  23. Ah, but the pitcher does have a limited number of pitches he can throw and the strike zone is the same each time. And if the batter connects with the ball, even the pitcher acknowledges the ball was hit. Perhaps you might work on your curve ball a bit.

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  24. I also don't believe that the right of the POTUS to be heard would be infringed if the invitation was withdrawn. He has ready access to a microphone anytime he wishes. This would not be censorship of any form. I would call this a red herring.

    "To be heard" is passive. You conveniently omit the important half of the equation, which is the right of the people who invited him to hear him.

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  25. I think that protesters are basically just seeking attention.

    Is there anything about which you are not cynical?

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  26. I think that protesters are basically just seeking attention.

    You persist in discussing this issue as though it were mainly students protesting Obama's invitation. But the most important protest was lodged by a group of ten Priests of the Holy Cross. Do you really think that these men are just "seeking attention?" The other main direction from which the protest comes is scattered alumni; clearly not attention seekers, either. Are you just reacting reflexively to what I'm writing, without even bothering to take into account the actual circumstances surrounding the issue?

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  27. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  28. Rodak, as for the "right to be heard" comments, if you actually meant the inviters' right to hear then perhaps you should have said that instead of making it the President's right. I responded to what you actually said. I have already answered the other issue and pointed out to you that is a prerogative rather than a right. I could invite someone to speak to me at my home. However, if my wife does not want that person in my home, I would uninvite him. I am sure you, under similar circumstances, would do the same.

    There is very little that I am not cynical about.

    Now, let's look at the case of "protesters", any dictionary will suffice to explain the term. You are adding in the "student" part. Not me. I did not imply that but you may have inferred it. It was a reasonable inference, though incorrect. But let's talk about those priests (and a couple of Bishops). The ones who are demanding the invitation be rescinded are just seeking attention. The ones who are announcing they won't be attending because of the President's presence are also just seeking attention. Otherwise, these people would have simply sent a letter to the school in the first instance and just not shown up in the second.

    To be as clear as I can here:

    Protests are for show, to get attention. They are public displays. The purpose is to attract public attention (note keyword there... attention)

    Just as you are doing here. I pointed out that I have no problem with the President being invited. I had to point that out to you twice. You are seeking an argument where there really is none. What other reason would you have for doing that except to seek attention?

    I do not wish to argue. I wish to discuss.

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  29. if you actually meant the inviters' right to hear then perhaps you should have said that instead of making it the President's right.

    What I said was, is this:

    "To be heard" is passive. You conveniently omit the important half of the equation, which is the right of the people who invited him to hear him.

    How much more clear could I have made it?

    You are adding in the "student" part. Not me.

    The "student part" was added right here:

    "Any university should invite anyone they choose. Any student who disagrees with said speaker should simply sit on their hands during the speech or not attend."

    Added by you, that is. Not me.

    With reference to the "protest" (not my word; I never used it in this thread), if you are so cynical as to be unable to contemplate the notion that some people actually act on principle, rather than for self-centered reasons, nothing will change your mind. In psychology they call that "projection"--i.e., you are able to interpret the actions of others only according to how you imagine yourself acting in similar circumstances. That problem can be overcome by consciously attempting to feel empathy for the Other. Or you can just be that way. It's up to you.

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  30. Rodak, You are correct that I did use "student", my apologies for saying it was you. You are willfully ignoring that I was responding to the statement you made and referring back to your original use of "right to be heard." This is what you wrote:
    Should the abortion issue trump the right of the POTUS to be heard, and the university community to hear him, at a world-class institution of higher learning?

    I repeat he has no "right to be heard." The university has the power to hear him or not, as they freely choose. They have no inherent right to hear him either, actually. They have been hired to perform a job. Part of that job is to select a speaker for commencement. But they also have bosses who may override them and tell them to rescind the invitation. Their bosses have that right also. The heads of the school can then decide if principle is greater than their desire to keep their jobs.

    And no actual censorship takes place in this process.

    You added "student" to "protester" I simply said "protester". I pointed out that the inference was reasonable but incorrect. "Protester" was a general term. Anyone who protests some event, issue, or speaker is a protester.

    Finally, I think I will simply ignore you. You wish to argue, you wish to "win" said arguments. You do not appear to wish to discuss anything. I do not want to argue. Try feeling some empathy with me about that.

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  31. Way back toward the beginning of this discussion I remarked about "silly" conversations. I amend my statement slightly in recognizing the importance of healthy debate. I also realize that I am not as interested in debating the type of subjects that by their nature will likely nev er be resolved by winning the other person over.
    Maybe it is just a matter of my recognizing that I don't care "how many angels dance on the head of a pin." (My label for arguments about who should speak where.--I am ducking now!)

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  32. You do not appear to wish to discuss anything.

    Actually, my aim and my attempt was to steer the conversation away from the false issue of "rights" and back to the primary issue of principles, such as those encompassed by the concept of intellectual (or "academic") freedom.
    In this I have failed: people insist upon telling me who has (or does not have) which "rights." Upon the issue of rights, I am in full agreement with everything you, and others, have said.
    The issue that I wished to discuss (but am hereby giving up on) was whether having once invited Mr. Obama to speak, would Notre Dame abandon those principles of intellectual freedom upon which any university qua university depends in order to maintain its credibility and good standing in the ancient community of institutions of higher learning?
    To me, this issue far transcends the collateral political issue. But, seemingly, I am alone in my concern. So be it. It's a mean old world. (Sam Cooke)

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  33. Let me try to draw a distinction between that which is a right and that which is a principle: Supposing that we were to meet face-to-face. I would have every right to look you in the eye and tell you that you are so ugly that you should be made to wear a mask when you go out in public. That would be my right.
    But, if I did that, I would be in violation of one, or more, very basic principles of decent human conduct.
    Wherever there is a conflict between rights and principles--which is not so rare an occurence--principles should trump rights.

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  34. Rodak:

    You often take us places we haven't visited previously, or crystallize concepts about which we may have thought, but not articulated in a concrete way. Hmmm. "Principles" versus "rights."

    One of the things that we try to do on this blog is to have people try to transfer the constructs they use in one setting, to other settings, to see if they reach the same result. That's why we pose questions in many different ways, and from many different angles.

    We would imagine that if one thinks of, and approaches, issues from a principled perspective, the result reached, despite the context, would generally be consistent. On the other hand, it one goes the "rights" path, then there might be far less consistency since other subjective factors potentially enter the picture.

    Interesting. We'll have to think on this one a little longer.

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  35. In your discussion of "principles" and "rights" Rodak, you reminded us of something else. People often unquestionably have the right to do or say something, and yet the question remains as to why should they do it. Sometimes it's just rude, or inappropriate. Sometimes, it just doesn't advance any interests, other than petty, selfish ones. The Logistician's Mother used to have a saying which he has tried to remember over the years: "If you can't find something good to say about someone, don't say anything at all." Why?

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  36. Log--
    Your (wise) mother was essentially teaching the lesson I tried to illustrate above.

    We have seen the principles vs. rights conflict played out in the debate over the use of torture. There we have the "right" of self-defense vs. the "principle" that torture is a violation of human dignity, degrades those whose resort to it, and is a thing that "good" nations do not practice.

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  37. Another example that comes to mind because of something I read today at work, goes back to the time of Negro slavery. A slave-owner had the "right" to pursue an escaped slave into a free state and assert his "property rights." But a man of good will living in that free state might well decide that his abolitionist principles trumped the slave owners property rights and hide that fugitive in violation of the law. Most of us would say that he was morally justified in so doing.

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  38. Just came across something that pertains to this. I found it on the Huffingtonpost.com

    ASU says 'We blew it'

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  39. As I understand it, ASU was going to have Obama speak, but not give him an honorary degree. The excuse was that they give honorary degrees only for "lifetime achievement." Yeah, right. As if the combined achievements of being the first African American president of the Harvard Law review; being a successful local office holder; being a United State senator; and become the first Afican American POTUS could be topped by any person as "life-time achievements." The problem is what? He got it all too fast, so it doesn't count?

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  40. Oh, and I forgot to add that Obama also became a successful author, before he was famous nationally as a presidential candidate.

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  41. The Pope is both the head of the Roman Catholic Church AND the head of State of Vatican City which gives him a unique position when it comes to invitations. If he were invited to speak at MIT or Berkley I for one would be interested in what he would have to say. The University could claim the invitation was based on his position as a Head of State but why would they have to do that? Academia can choose who they will to invite and the guest can accept or decline as they please as well. Whose business would it be except for the Alumni who occasionally act like they own the institutions because they may or may not help to support them. If one is an Alumni and are offended you can always withdraw your support or you could use that fine education and give yourself the opportunity to hear a different point of view every few centuries.

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  42. You mean to tell me that this is the first time ever in the history of this university that it has had a speaker whose views were contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church?!

    The Logistician facetiously, I am sure, asked whether the Pope should be allowed to speak at a public school. On a serious level, should some public or secular institutions deny the opportunity to speak to religious leaders?

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