Presidential Address Sparks Anger - Part II

The Cardinal Newman Society wants Notre Dame to halt President Obama's visit. But Notre Dame theology professor Richard McBrien supports the university's decision to honor the president.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

Now for a very different view - view - we go to the Reverend Richard McBrien. He's a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. Welcome, Father, thank you so much for joining us.

RICHARD MCBRIEN: Happy to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: Father, why don't you just response to what Mr. Reilly said, that his - that abortion is an intrinsic evil and that it's a fundamental principle, and that a Catholic institution should not be in the business of honoring someone who supports or takes that position.

MCBRIEN: Well, there's a lot of elements to that question, Michel. First of all, the fundamental principle is not that all abortions are - are evil. The fundamental principle is that all life is sacred. And it's still a matter of applying that principle to specific political questions, which are very complex. So that's number one. And number two is that are we saying then that only intrinsic evils are to be seriously taken into account when mounting, let us say, a public protest about a matter of this sort?

For example, when President Bush came here to Notre Dame in his first year in office, he came as the governor of Texas, who had presided over and allowed the greatest number of executions of any governor in the United States. Now, Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical "Evangelium Vitae," which means the gospel of life, said - said very explicitly that there're almost no circumstances in which capital punishment would be morally justified. It was like 99.99999 percent. And are we going to suggest that - that all of the cases of capital punishment in Texas during President Bush's years as governor there were - fit the Pope's definition of an exceptional case? Of course not.

MARTIN: Well, Mr. Reilly addressed that point, and he says that there was just a distinction in doctrine between abortion and the death penalty.

MCBRIEN: No, Mr. Reilly is not a theologian. I am, and he - that is not true. Evil is evil, whether you want to call it intrinsic evil or, you know, run-of-the-mill evil. Evil is evil, and the taking of life, whether it's in the question of abortion or in the question of capital punishment or an unjust war, through torture, whatever it might be, is evil. And therefore, you have to take that into account when evaluating any public figure's record.

MARTIN: His argument, though - forgive me for pushing, sir, the time is upon us. That there are other ways in which the university could engage in dialogue with someone with whom - who disagrees with a fundamental principle. But that this particular platform, the commencement address and the honorary degree, elevates this person to a standing that, in his view, sacrifices the integrity of the institution, and it questions faithfulness to these core principles. What do you say?

MCBRIEN: Barack Obama is the president of the United States. He was elected by an overwhelming margin. He even carried the state of Indiana, which has never gone Democratic since I've been here, and I've been at Notre Dame since 1980. The last time Indiana went Democratic was in 1964.

So, talking about elevating Barack Obama is nonsense. He's the president of the United States. You can't elevate him any higher than that as a public figure. And as Father Jenkins said, and I think very rightly, no university, certainly not Notre Dame, is endorsing or embracing all of a public figure's views when it confers an honorary degree or invites the individual to give a commencement address.

It didn't do that in the case of President George W. Bush. It didn't do that in the case of President Ronald Reagan, when he came here in 1981 after being shot. So, I mean, that's always the case.

The problem is that there are too many people, and I'm not debating Mr. Reilly, that wouldn't be fair because he's not able to defend himself, again. But the problem with too many people in this whole controversy are they think in too simplistic terms, you know. That for example, abortion is the only issue that matters. Well, it's not the only issue that matters.

The American Catholic bishops have made that very clear in their quadrennial statement. Every four years, prior to a presidential election since Roe v. Wade in 1973, that Catholic voters must take into account a whole spectrum of life issues. Abortion is a very important issue, there's no question about it, but it's not the only life issue. And secondly, the American bishops have consistently said that they do not want to put themselves in a position of either endorsing or opposing candidates for public office. And a minority of bishops in 2004 and again in 2008 violated that principal when they, in effect, told their Catholic constituents that it would be a grave mortal sin jeopardizing their eternal salvation if they voted for Barack Obama.

MARTIN: I'm afraid we're going to have to leave it there, Father McBrien. Sorry, the issue is complex and our time is short. Perhaps we should speak again after the speech and see how we feel then. Thank you so much.

MCBRIEN: Be happy to.

MARTIN: The Reverend Richard McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. He joined us from the studios of WSND at Notre Dame, Indiana. Thank you, Father.

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