Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Technically correct, the best kind of correct

With the Pascal Triduum safely behind us, we can return to the issue of Notre Dame.

It would seem that Fr. Jenkins is looking for any out he can find. It has been reported that Fr. Jenkins is now trying to hide behind some canonical technicalities.

The 2004 document was clearly adopted by the Bishops as provisional. As the document says, "[h]aving received an extensive report from the Task Force on Catholic Bishops and Catholic Politicians, and looking forward to the full report, we highlight several points from the interim report that suggest some directions for our efforts...." Nevertheless, despite its provisional character, this document has been used by all the people at Notre Dame who recommend speakers for commencement or others for honorary degrees since its publication. We have tried to follow both the letter and the spirit of its recommendations.

Two key sentences of the document have been frequently quoted regarding the invitation to President Obama:

"Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions."

Because the title of the document is "Catholics in Political Life", we understood this to refer to honoring Catholics whose actions are not in accord with our moral principles. This interpretation was supported by canon lawyers we consulted, who advised us that, by definition, only Catholics who implicitly recognize the authority of Church teaching can act in "defiance" of it. Moreover, fellow university presidents have told me that their bishops have told them that in fact it is only Catholic politicians who are referred to in this document.

In addition, regardless of how one interprets the first sentence, the second is also important. It reads: "They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions. [My italics]" In every statement I have made about the invitation of President Obama and in every statement I will make, I express our disagreement with him on issues surrounding the protection of life, such as abortion and embryonic stem cell research. If we repeatedly and clearly state that we do not support the President on these issues, we cannot be understood to "suggest support".

Canonist Ed Peters discusses this comment as well.
But speaking of words, Jenkins' unnamed canon lawyers (assuming, by the way, that they were answering the question Jenkins thought he was asking, and that Jenkins understood and is accurately conveying their response) tell him that "by definition, only Catholics who implicitly recognize the authority of Church teaching can act in 'defiance' of it." Huh?

What's this "by definition" stuff? What definition? A definition of "defiance"? The word "defiance" is not in the Code. Even the Latin pertinacia does not seem to apply to our facts, so, what exactly is Jenkins talking about here? I don't know, but whatever Jenkins or his canonists hope it means, the sentence he/they put so much stock in was obviously not drafted to stand up to close textual parsing. Else, all a Catholic would have to do to avoid the charge of acting in "defiance" of Church authority would be to decline recognizing Church authority in the first place!

Likewise, watch how Jenkin's claim that bestowing an honorary doctorate on the pro-abortion movement's most powerful politician ever does not "suggest support" for the politician's pro-abortion record, can be parsed into a defense of Jenkins: an honorary doctorate of law does not "suggest" support for a politicians' legal philosophy, no, instead it screams it. Therefore, Jenkins is not guilty of "suggesting" support. Aren't word games fun?
He goes on to suggest that the solution to the problem would be for the school to declare itself no longer Catholic, then the Bishops wouldn't have any complaints. Recall also that Bishop D'Arcy said in his interview recently
They are saying in their correspondence, that that only applied to Catholics, and that it was only a provisionary document. The person who can interpret when there is a difference on a Canonical matter is the local Bishop, but they never asked my opinion as to whether this document applied or did not apply.
Basically, this whole thing feels like an attempt to get out of a scandal by technicality. Do you think that St. Peter at the gates to heaven will see it the same way.

It also brings up a number of questions. If this was something done, or thought about ahead of time, why did it take this long to get out? Isn't it more plausible that this was a reactionary step? Also, what sort of canon lawyers did they find to come up with the interpretation they did, after all, the Bishops, who crafted this document, have been quite clear about that they intended. At this point, I think that anything Fr. Jenkins will say, short of canceling the invitation, will just seem like a child making excuses.

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