Could St. Thomas Aquinas Address Notre Dame Graduates?
The uproar over President Obama’s speech at Notre Dame University has drawn nation-wide attention, not least so in the Pacific Northwest where I now live after 36 years in Southeastern Michigan.
The protesters’ argument that a Catholic university should not invite an abortion supporter to speak at its commencement, or last least should not have awarded him an honorary degree, is based on serious confusion about the relationship between law and morality.
The official position of the Catholic Church is that abortion is immoral and although I am not a Catholic I believe this position is a correct one. But the immorality of an action does not automatically produce the conclusion that it should be illegal. An immoral action may be good in the sense that it is the least bad option available under the circumstances.
St. Thomas Aquinas, the outstanding Catholic philosopher, pointed out that the side effects of trying to outlaw all sin may be worse than the benefits. Government has only limited resources for enforcing its laws and can easily spread itself too thin. It must therefore concentrate on preventing actions that destroy all possibility of civilization and human fellowship.
Under the unfortunate circumstances of the modern United States, laws against abortion would probably produce an increased total amount of evil and a further deterioration in our circumstances. Sexual promiscuity and illegitimate births are rampant. Were it not for the large number of abortions currently performed a higher and higher percentage of children would be brought up in underprivileged homes. Already intolerable pressures on the welfare and schooling systems would be increased.
Thus as a policy the Supreme Court’s decision unleashing abortions from the shackles of law was probably wise. The real scandal here, however, is not so much what was done, but by whom it was done. The Supreme Court is not supposed to make basic policy decisions. The constitutional reasoning which it invoked to support its Roe v. Wade decision was so flimsy that Roe supporters have been terrified ever since that a future Supreme Court might overrule it. What the Supreme Court can arbitrarily give, it could arbitrarily take away.
Congress is the branch of government in our system that is supposed to make basic policy decisions. If Congress had enacted laws protecting the right to have an abortion we could have been spared the vicious politics that have surfaced every time the Supreme Court has had a vacancy for over 30 years.
The whole situation, in a word, is a political, legal, and moral mess. One wonders how President Obama’s critics would react if St. Thomas Aquinas were brought in by time machine to speak to Notre Dame graduates next year. It is quite possible that after carefully studying the current scene, Aquinas would conclude that, although abortion remains immoral (an arena where the Church has something to say), it should not therefore be made illegal.
Would today’s protesters return to denounce Notre Dame for bringing in perhaps the greatest Catholic philosopher?
Fortunately, no time machine is likely to be available.