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Render Unto Obama?: Needed - A Faith-and-Reason University

May 16th, 2009
The B.C. Catholic (

Giving an honorary law degree to someone who does not recognize the natural right to life does dishonor to Notre Dame’s own Catholic identity

LANGLEY, BC (BC Catholic) - Rev. John Jenkins, president of Notre Dame, is welcoming Obama in the name of respect and tolerance. He is unable to give a reason why a Catholic university should not honor a pro-abortion President with the privilege of a commencement speech.

He is unable to give a reason why giving an honorary law degree to someone who does not recognize the natural right to life does dishonor to Notre Dame’s own Catholic identity. Rather, Jenkins thinks that any “positive engagement” with Obama requires, not simply intellectual dialogue, but the gift of all these honors — as if a Catholic university would belittle itself by begrudging a famous and popular politician the adulation he seeks.

Some Catholic universities are afraid to be criticized as “intolerant” or “not open to serious intellectual dialogue” if they make institutional distinctions about what and whom they will honor or dishonor. They are afraid that by drawing such lines they will be criticized for suppressing “academic freedom”.

But this criticism is a confusion that arises from a lack of interdisciplinarity in the modern university. On the contrary, so-called “faith-based” institutional practices, which emphasize the intrinsic harmony of faith and reason, are a guarantee that universities will foster the achievements of reason and science in a way that does not disrespect the complementary approaches to reality of other cultures and traditions.

Catholic universities are thus better characterized as “faith-and-reason”-based, since their institutional reason for existence is to provide a mediating, ecumenical role between human reason and particular faiths. On the one hand, there is a secular humanism that approaches cultural issues with a Western, ideological perspective.

On the other hand, there are other cultures recognizing spiritual reality as something transcending Western scientific ideologies. Both approaches possess insights that may contribute to a common ground for global culture. Therefore, institutional requirements that “faith-and-reason”-based teachers profess fidelity to the particular Catholic Christian tradition of “faith-and-reason” act as a guarantee that such scholars are committed to their mediating, ecumenical role.

In short, a Christian university must be able to “speak the languages” both of faith and of reason, with a whole-hearted commitment to both that refuses to “short change” one at the expense of the other. This equal balance of faith and reason, as historically developed in Catholic Christian universities, is a rich cultural heritage and a great resource for global culture.

Because of the leveling hegemony that unbridled Western scientism and that economic globalization threatens to bring to global culture, Christian universities offer a unique model for safeguarding the voices of human tradition within global culture. But some say that adherence to a particular faith militates against the Christian university’s mediating, ecumenical goal.

However, it has been the experience of the Catholic Christian tradition that it is precisely protections for particular faith commitments that are necessary in order to protect reason from falling into the mistake of subtly promoting a universal hegemony of only one implicit ideology — one dimly-understood, yet all-pervasive.

By explicitly highlighting an institutional “bias” in the form of its “faith” commitment, this “faith” commitment is therefore never taken for granted, but rather always put forth as a perspective to be vigorously challenged and renewed through rational inquiry. The strength of the “faith-and-reason”-based university tradition, then, is that its constitutional identity is designed to highlight self-critical, autonomous inquiry.

But the weakness of a secular institution — committed to “the official ideology of having no official ideology” — is that it is tempted to treat the problems of interdisciplinarity and contextuality as having already been solved once and for all by this “official ideology of no ideology”.

The “faith-and-reason”-based university tradition, however, by its very nature does not see this profound human problem of particular perspectives as ever solvable by an easy ideological or institutional declaration of official neutrality. The bias of “officially having no bias” is arguably the most dangerous of all intellectual delusions, because it is an invitation to intellectual complacency — by considering the perennial educational problems of self-examination and dialogue to have been “officially” solved.

Yet it is this secular delusion that is at the root of Notre Dame’s decision to invite and honor Obama, no matter his ideology or actions. “All speakers are welcome; we honor them all, and thereby honor academic freedom,” is the dubious message; “It is official: we are Catholic, but we have no bias.” This is a grave delusion, not least because serious dialogue never honors another’s view by cheap and easy dishonor to one’s own view.

An intellectual argument worthy of a serious Catholic university would be this: to dishonor a famous and popular President, and then to explain why the common good of society is guarded by protecting its right and its duty to render such rebukes unto Caesar.


C.S. Morrissey is Assistant Professor of Medieval Latin Philosophy at Redeemer Pacific College.

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