New York — Before there was the Nobel Peace Prize announcement, there was Notre Dame’s announcement that they’d be awarding Pres. Barack Obama an honorary degree last spring. In some circles, the news from South Bend was even more reason-defying than this more recent announcement would be: The Nobel Committee’s honoree list already included Yasser Arafat, after all, so the outrage meter was broken in Oslo.
Of course, Notre Dame had already provided the forum for Mario Cuomo’s infamous “personally opposed” speech. All the more reason, as Our Lady’s university and one of the most prominent Catholic schools in the country, to get this one right. And yet they did the exact opposite: They gave the most pro-abortion president in the history of the United States, as some of us are wont to acknowledge, their most prominent forum and thus political cover.
At least, I suppose, they did it before the president called the U.S. conference of Catholic bishops — along with other religious leaders — liars, actually accusing them of “bearing false witness” for characterizing his health-care push as a threat to our most vulnerable human lives, those of the unborn. It’s not like he had already put his support behind the deadly, expansive Freedom of Choice Act. (Oh, yes, he did, didn’t he.) It’s not like he had already reversed the Mexico City international-abortion-funding-prohibition policy. (Of course he did; that was one of the very first things he did in office.) It’s not like he was still refusing to take government-directed abortion expansion off the health-care reform table. (The U.S. Catholic bishops — no right-wing think tank — certainly believe differently.)
These actions were in many ways made easier — perhaps even possible — by prominent Catholics in his administration and by Notre Dame’s decision to invite and honor him. Mercifully, Mary Ann Glendon made a different decision entirely.
She did not win the Nobel Peace Prize (though in her career as law professor, author, and diplomat, one could very well argue she should), but on Wednesday night at the Waldorf, Mary Ann Glendon was honored by the National Right to Life Educational Trust Fund “for a trip that she declined to take to a small town in Indiana” because she knows that “a conscience is a terrible thing to waste.”
Glendon was asked to accept Notre Dame’s prestigious Laetare Medal at the same graduation ceremony. But upon receiving the news that she would be providing cover for Barack Obama, the former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican declined.
At the time, responding to Notre Dame’s president’s insistence that there would be a fruitful dialogue between the pomp and circumstance, Glendon wrote that: “A commencement . . . is supposed to be a joyous day for the graduates and their families. It is not the right place, nor is a brief acceptance speech the right vehicle, for engagement with the very serious problems raised by Notre Dame’s decision — in disregard of the settled position of the U.S. bishops — to honor a prominent and uncompromising opponent of the Church’s position on issues involving fundamental principles of justice.”
To put those guidelines aside would be to put principle aside, she worried. To put identity aside. She wrote: “With recent news reports that other Catholic schools are similarly choosing to disregard the bishops’ guidelines, I am concerned that Notre Dame’s example could have an unfortunate ripple effect.”
During her Waldorf speech, Glendon warned that “choices last,” and said that is why she made the one she did. Continuing to use the word that happens to be the abortion industry’s favorite euphemism, she said that “choices make us the people we are.” And “collective choices make us the kind of culture we are.”
“Each time,” she cautioned, we make policy decisions on abortion, euthanasia, and embryonic experimentation, “we are shaping our country’s moral ecology for better or for worse.” She further warned of “how easily today’s atrocity can become tomorrow’s routine.”
But how do you make choices without a well-formed conscience? In a 2002 article called “The Hour of the Laity,” Glendon worried that Catholics in America “no longer know how to talk about what they believe or why they believe it. The people-called-together have lost their sense of who they are and what they were called to do.”
Identity, in other words, is the problem.
And they seem to have lost a lot of mail as well. How many lay people, one wonders, have read any of the letters that popes have addressed to them over the years? For that matter, how many Catholics can give a sensible account of basic Church teachings on matters as close to them as the Eucharist and human sexuality, let alone the lay apostolate? If few can do so, it is not for lack of communications from Rome. Building on Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno, the fathers of Vatican II reminded the lay faithful that it is their particular responsibility “to evangelize the various sectors of family, social, professional, cultural, and political life.”
One might add in fall 2009, how many were confused about press interpretations of the latest papal encyclical and never bothered reading it in dismay? How many Catholics were disappointed and distracted or led astray by the prominent Catholic funeral celebration the late abortion advocate Ted Kennedy received?
Glendon went on to quote Pope John Paul II:
In Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, to take just one example, he renewed the call to the social apostolate, emphasizing “the preeminent role” of the laity in protecting the dignity of the person, and asking “both men and women . . . to be convinced of . . . each one’s individual responsibility, and to implement — by the way they live as individuals and as families, by the use of their resources, by their civic activity, by contributing to economic and political decisions, and by personal commitment to national and international undertakings — the measures inspired by solidarity and love of preference for the poor.” He spelled out the implications of the lay vocation for contemporary Americans with great clarity in Baltimore in 1995: “Sometimes witnessing to Christ will mean drawing out of a culture the full meaning of its noblest intentions. . . . At other times, witnessing to Christ means challenging that culture, especially when the truth about the human person is under assault.”
The truth about human life is that some deadly choices have been made and continue to be. The truth about human nature is that in the years since the warnings of Humanae Vitae, much damage has been done to our understanding of our duties to human dignity.
Calling Mary Ann Glendon “a real confessor of the faith” in remarks before the opening prayer at the dinner, New York’s Archbishop Timothy Dolan emphasized that when it comes to the dignity of human life, “We are in grave peril, and we should know better.” With examples like Ambassador Glendon, who chose to do her part to build a culture of life, more will.
– Kathryn Jean Lopez is an editor-at-large of National Review Online and a nationally syndicated columnist.