Francis Beckwith knows what it's like to be in the middle of controversy. In fact, he thinks he's a magnet for it. Beckwith, who is a philosophy and church-studies professor at Baylor University, triggered a debate when he resigned as president of the Evangelical Theological Society after converting to Catholicism.
Now Beckwith happens to be a visiting fellow at the University of Notre Dame, where a new debate is focused on the university's invitation to President Obama to speak at commencement.
"My wife says I'm like the Forrest Gump for controversy," he said. "But on campus, more people are concerned about whether the Fighting Irish would beat Kentucky." Beckwith spoke with Christianity Today about what the discussion means for Catholic and evangelical higher education institutions. (See also responses from Fuller Seminary president Richard Mouw and Union University president David Dockery.)
Since the President will speak at several commencement ceremonies during his term, why did his invitation to speak at Notre Dame create such a stir?
There's nothing wrong with inviting speakers to campus who disagree with the university. I don't think that's the issue here. Here, you have a combination of a commencement address and an honorary doctorate. The honorary doctorate is more troubling than the commencement address because to give him an honorary doctorate in law is to say that he's accomplished something in the field of law that the University of Notre Dame wants to honor. In the past three weeks, we've seen a number of different events, one of which was the change in policy on embryonic stem cell research. The problem is, the areas in which he's been involved with legislation on the issue of abortion have been contrary to Catholic teaching.
Colleges regularly invite people whom they may disagree with to speak on campus. For instance, Wheaton College invited Condoleezza Rice to speak at commencement even though she is pro-choice.
I can see a situation where you have an elected official who may be pro-choice, but it's not the focus or center of their legislative history. For instance, Houston Baptist invited Rudolph Giuliani, but he just gave a speech. He even acknowledged in his speech, "Look, my views on abortion are not held by a vast majority of you in the audience." But I think that Houston Baptist would not have given him an honorary doctorate in law. One of the things Obama is working on right now is perhaps overturning the conscience clause that the Bush administration had instituted, which has a direct bearing on Catholic hospitals. Here, you have a case where somebody claims to extol the virtue of choice but wants to remove choice from the conscience of citizens when it comes to performing or referring people for abortions.
How do religious institutions balance inviting speakers and promoting what the speaker stands for?
I think that universities should not extend commencement invitations to anyone elected to office unless they've been retired for a long time. The sort of cultural issues that dominate the landscape today just weren't there 30 or 40 years ago. People would argue about what you want to do with the Panama Canal. Now they get to the heart of who and what we are as human beings. Those are deeply theological questions. I do think it's great to invite them to lectures to engage in dialogue. When you have a wide range of students at commencement, I think that schools should play it safe.
Pope John Paul II issued Ex Corde Ecclesiae in 1990 stressing the importance of the Catholic character of Catholic institutions of higher learning. How has Ex Corde Ecclesiae influenced this current debate?
I think the statement has given them a template to look at the relationship between Catholic theology and the university. If places like Notre Dame took it seriously, an invitation to be the commencement speaker and receive an honorary doctorate would not have gone out. For instance, I would welcome Barack Obama to speak at Baylor. But in this case, the honorary doctorate doesn't go to the office of the President. It goes to Barack Obama, even after he ceases to be president. In a way, that gives an imprimatur on him and his views that I don't think Notre Dame should give him. I think if he were just the commencement speaker and not receiving the honorary doctorate, it would tone down the criticism. How can Notre Dame give him an honorary doctorate for excellence in something that our own theology teaches he isn't excellent in?
The real debate is whether theological claims can count as knowledge. I think that's what the Pope is saying: if we think theology is true and knowable, that means it's no different than what we learn in literature or sociology or philosophy. If that's the case, the university is where we should integrate these areas of knowledge. Theology shouldn't be an after thought. It shouldn't be relegated to campus ministry. It's like in the evangelical world, tagging on a Bible verse. You'll have a book on Christianity and science and it'll be regular science and a section of Bible verses. You think, "This isn't integration, this is weird."
Would there have been similar outrage if Obama had been invited to a nondenominational Christian school?
At places like Biola and Westmont, I suspect that he would be welcomed as a speaker, but I can't imagine with their constituencies that he would go over well as a commencement speaker. But in Catholicism, you have an identifiable body of moral theology that's in the Catechism. It's not ambiguous. You can't say different people interpret the Bible differently on this matter. That's not an option.
It depends on the evangelical school. A lot of evangelical institutions came into being as a reaction against modernism in the Protestant world. In a way, they can point to their history coming into being as a reaction to theological liberalism. Catholic schools don't have that luxury because a lot of them pre-date modernism. For many of them, they've had many in their ranks for years who are not traditional Catholics. I think it's more difficult for Catholic institutions to start saying, "We're going to start being more strict." Evangelical schools like Biola, Westmont, Calvin, and Wheaton can point to a history as a reaction to modernist-fundamentalist debates in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
How do battles within Catholic higher education differ from the disagreements at evangelical colleges over maintaining the identity or the mission of a school?
There are different issues because they have different histories. Catholics, at least those who came in the 19th or early 20th centuries, came to America as ethnic and religious minorities. There's a desire for upward mobility that maybe evangelicals don't have as strongly. Much of evangelicalism is connected to traditional Protestantism, which of course had been dominant in America.
But I don't think they differ all that much. The university faces pressures from the wider academic world, which has a particular understanding of what academic life has got to be about. If, for example, Notre Dame were to terminate a faculty member for denying the Apostle's Creed, you would hear claims that the faculty member's academic freedom had been violated. Yet, if the university had terminated a chemistry professor because he denied the periodic table, nobody would object. That means that theology in some circles is not thought to be knowledge. Can one legitimately claim that one's theological tradition is knowledge? Not only Catholic but evangelical institutions—can one legitimately claim that certain issues are settled? That's really the issue. What are we to think of theology? Is it something we can know? I think it is.
Most of this debate has taken place in Catholic circles, but is there anything that evangelicals can take away from this debate?
I think all Christians can learn to start thinking about what it means to believe something. When I was interviewing at Baylor, the provost at the time asked me, "I know you believe in the Apostle's Creed, but if someone believes the Apostle's Creed is mistaken, are they wrong?" He wanted to see not what I believed, but whether I believed it was true and knowable. If we say that our theological tradition is true, is it something we merely believe, or is it something that we do in fact believe is true and knowable. That factors into all of our decisions and who we invite to be commencement speakers and who we hire. We have to think about what it means to believe something. It's an epistemological question, a question about what we know and whether it is true.
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See also responses on Notre Dame's Obama invitation from Fuller Seminary president Richard Mouw and Union University president David Dockery.
Christianity Today interviewed Francis Beckwith after he converted to Catholicism.
See also our earlier coverage of the 2005 debate at Calvin College over then-President Bush's commencement speech, and last year's debate at Cedarville University over a speaking invitation to Shane Claiborne.