Here on planet "What About Me," principled people are so rare as to be oddities. Thus, it was a head-swiveling moment Monday when Mary Ann Glendon, the former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, quietly declined Notre Dame's Laetare Medal.
Glendon a Harvard University law professor and a respected author on bioethics and human rights rejected the honor in part because Barack Obama was invited to be commencement speaker and to receive an honorary degree.
In a letter to Notre Dame's president, the Rev. John I. Jenkins, Glendon wrote of her dismay that Obama was to receive the degree in disregard of the U.S. bishops' position that Catholic institutions "should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles."
But the more compelling reason seems to have been Glendon's sense that she was being used to deflect criticism. As a mutual friend put it, "Father Jenkins thought he could use Mary Ann Glendon as a fig leaf."
In her letter, Glendon cited "talking points" issued by Notre Dame following criticism of the decision to honor Obama, including that:
(1) "President Obama won't be doing all the talking. Mary Ann Glendon, the former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, will be speaking as the recipient of the Laetare Medal."
(2) "We think having the president come to Notre Dame, see our graduates, meet our leaders, and hear a talk from Mary Ann Glendon is a good thing for the president and for the causes we care about."
Glendon, who is no mortal's pawn, decided she couldn't accept the award.
To non-Catholics, Glendon's act may seem of little importance, yet another feud within the church. Abortion, after all, is settled law, and Obama is the duly elected president. Clearly, the American people have moved on.
Or have they? And should we? Is there really ever a time when we should be comfortable with the ratification of abortion? It has always seemed to me that the truest form of feminism, as in the earliest days of suffrage, would be to hold abhorrent the state-sanctioned destruction of women's unique life-bearing gifts. Out of material expedience, we've somehow managed to convince ourselves that life is a mistake.
While one may prefer to preserve the legality of individual discretion (my own reluctant, if withering, position), it is nonetheless consoling that there are still those who relentlessly defend life's sanctity. The alternative, after all, is far less comforting.
Increasingly, however, even Catholic institutions can't be relied upon to hold the fraying line between our humanity and materialism. Another Laetare recipient, the novelist and physician Walker Percy, told the 1989 graduating class:
"It is a disaster when only one kind of truth prevails at the expense of another. If only one kind of truth prevails the abstract and technical truth of science then nothing stands in the way of a demeaning of and a destruction of human life for what appear to be reasonable, short-term goals.
"It's no accident, I think, that German science, great as it was, ended in the destruction of a Holocaust. The novelist likes to irritate people by pointing this out."
One needn't be a dedicated pro-lifer to understand the consternation Obama's invitation has caused. He is more radical than all previous presidents on the life issue, with his loosening of federal funding for abortion and embryonic stem cell research, as well as his campaign promise to pass the Freedom of Choice Act.
To his credit, Obama has left some Bush-era restrictions in place on embryonic stem cell research. Under new guidelines, federal funding may be used for research only on surplus embryos from fertility clinics, not on cells or embryos created just for research.
Nevertheless, his abortion stance is in direct conflict with Catholic teaching. And no place symbolizes Catholics in America quite the way Notre Dame does.
Offering this backdrop and extending the school's imprimatur to Obama constitutes a wink and a nod to abortion. Why not throw a pig roast in Mecca? That was Glendon's point. By her symbolic gesture of self-denial, she demonstrates that faith is an act, not a motto.
Obama might consider following Glendon's lead. Although he supports choice, the president also recognizes the moral complexity of those decisions. Out of respect for pro-life Catholics and their beloved institution, he should politely bow out.