Monday, May 21, 2012

Commence(ment) Debate

I listened last week to a short piece on NPR concerning the selection of commencement speakers at Catholic schools. In some quarters, rancor has erupted over Georgetown University's School of Public Policy Institute's invitation to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to deliver its commencement address (Wow, that seemed like a long sentence). 

Here is a portion of the transcript from the NPR conversation:
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: Sebelius is Catholic. She's also liberal and pro-choice. And the fact that she's speaking to Georgetown's Public Policy Institute makes conservative Catholics, like Patrick Reilly, see red.
PATRICK REILLY: Well, this is clearly a betrayal of the bishops.
HAGERTY: Riley is president of the Cardinal Newman Society. He notes that Sebelius is the architect of the Obama administration's requirement that Catholic universities and hospitals offer birth control coverage.
REILLY: This is not someone who the Catholic Church, or Catholic institutions, should be honoring.
HAGERTY: The Archdiocese of Washington asked the Jesuit university to rescind the invitation. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The Archdiocese of Washington did not ask Georgetown to withdraw its invitation.] Georgetown spokeswoman Stacy Kerr says it will not.
STACY KERR: Her visit does not mean that the university endorses her positions. In fact, those who speak at Georgetown do not speak for Georgetown.
Now, as a person who is thoroughly committed to the dignity and preservation of human life, I do have serious issues with the positions of Secretary Sebelius concerning abortion. This said, I recognize that her voice is not a lone voice in our country - decidedly not! - nor is it really a lone voice within the Church. 
I think the challenge, as I have posted before, rests upon either an inability or an unwillingness to engage in authentic discourse. When we debate, generally, each side stakes its position and argues from it. In my experience, one seldom changes the position of the other. We become almost fixated with one another, soon seeing the other person more as an antagonist than as a conversation partner. 
How much more effective would it be, consequently, if instead of considering only the position of the other we actually took the time to understand what the other side values. That is to say, underneath the floorboards of a position, what is the value-structure that serves as the foundation? While we might not have much luck engaging in discussions of position, I do think it more fruitful and beneficial to share what it is we value with one another. If we can arrive at a set of shared values, I suspect, we can creatively find new solutions to problems that have proved intractable in the past. 
Secretary Sebelius, in her remarks at Georgetown, recognizes the importance of this conversation:
Ultimately, public policy is about making difficult choices. Today, there are serious debates underway about the direction of our country – debates about the size and role of government, about America’s role as a global economic and military leader, about the moral and economic imperative of providing health care to all our citizens. People have deeply-held beliefs on all sides of these discussions, and you, as public policy leaders, will be called on to help move these debates forward.
Rather than excoriating the other side for disagreeing with 'my' position, how much more fruitful would it be for us to have debate-advancing conversations which would both uncover our values and lead us to see that, very often, our disagreements are eclipsed by the common ground on which we stand and the virtues we share. 

For a long time, I have found people like Patrick Reilly profoundly unhelpful. Their finger-pointing tends only to galvanize the sides and encourages a sort of myopic fundamentalism that blinds both poles of a discussion. As a tradition that values both Faith and Reason, I think the Catholic Church and its universities are singularly able to play a mediating role in these important discussions, drawing various voices together in a spirit of charity and inquiry, and probing beneath the surface positions to arrive at commonly shared values. No one converts because of a good argument. Conversion happens because, through investigation, one's heart is moved by what another values and, in the process of changing what one values, one's life changes. 

Perhaps this is why I love teaching: my job is to help to form the hearts and minds of students, to cultivate within them an acute mind and a vulnerable heart, that they, too, may dwell capably in a morally complex world and discern how God is calling them to share in, and promote, the values of the Kingdom to a broken world. 
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