Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Summons of Freedom: Virtue, Sacrifice, and the Common Good

The Center for Ethics and Culture held its 10th Annual Fall Conference this year, entitled: "The Summons of Freedom: Virtue, Sacrifice, and the Common Good." It was inspired by Pope Benedict XVI’s remarks on the South Lawn of the White House during his apostolic visit to the United States last April:

“Freedom is not only a gift, but also a summons to personal responsibility. Americans know this from experience—almost every town in this country has its monuments honoring those who sacrificed their lives in defense of freedom, both at home and abroad. The preservation of freedom calls for the cultivation of virtue, self-discipline, sacrifice for the common good, and a sense of responsibility towards the less fortunate. It also demands the courage to engage in civic life and to bring one’s deepest beliefs and values to reasoned public debate.”

Presenting papers on the wide variety of topics were the usual assorted distinguished intellectuals and magnetic newcomers. One newcomer, Rev. John Raphael, S.S.J., Principal of St. Augustine High School in New Orleans, LA started the conference off Thursday night, with his talk titled “Building a Bridge over Troubled Waters: Inviting African Americans into the Pro-Life Movement.” Father Raphael presented the difficulties as well as the necessity of building such a bridge. He said that bringing the African-American community into the pro-life movement has the potential to turn the pro-abortion tide and make America a truly pro-life country, but the road to wed the pro-life and African-American communities is difficult. “The great divide” that exists between the two communities is not based on fundamental disagreement about the morality of abortion, Father Raphael said, but rather “exists at a deep and complex level,” mainly because of an inability to communicate with each other and misunderstandings about each other. “A bridge must be built because African-Americans need the pro-life community, and the pro-life community needs African-Americans. Our future is being destroyed by the genocidal magnitude of abortion, and pro-lifers are saving the African-American communities from extinction,” Father Raphael said.

Friday was packed full of a broad conglomerate of sessions ranging from Augustine, to business ethics, to Notre Dame's invitation of President Obama, to MacIntyrian Ethics. The first group of invited speakers included long-time conference participant, H. Tristram Engelhardt of Rice University, on “Freedom, Goods, and Persons: Christian Responsibility in a Post-Christian Age,” Notre Dame's own Mary Keys on “Why Justice Is Not Enough: Aquinas and Wilberforce on Mercy, Love, and the Common Good,” and loyal Center supporter Michael Novak on “Three Precisions: Social Justice, Common Good, Personal Liberty.”

Saturday brought with it Alice von Hildebrand's talk on “Man and Woman: A Divine Invention.” All were intrigued by her presentation that borrowed from the thought of "beloved Plato," as she called him. Some memorable quotes include, "To become famous, you don’t have to find the truth, but to formulate an error in a new way,"and "God has set limits to our intelligence, but not to our stupidity," and "spending life in academia is an ideal place to hear stupid things." However, Hildebrand wasn't just trying to make the audience laugh, she also presented the audience with the challenge of being a saint. She said that the way for man to become a saint is to become unified. She described the relation between the soul and body, and what brought about a separation. "The body is elevated by the union with the soul. We are not irrational animals. Man is a person incarnated in a body. If so, all organs differ from those of a purely animal body. All parts of the body are elevated. Into this reality comes original sin, and because man revolted against God, the body revolted against the soul. Augustine’s solution to this problem is prayer, humility, and accepting grace." This relates to human beings as male and female Hildebrand says because "the plenitude of human nature is never realized when male and female are at odds or divorced." Rather unification is seen between human beings as male and female when the "man is enchanted with the woman, and the woman is filled with admiration (awe, and gratitude) when she meets a male worthy of the name ‘human being.’”

Later in the day, Rick Garnett of the Notre Dame Law School spoke about religious freedom in America. Garnett posed the following question to the audience: “How goes the progress of the American model of religious freedom today? Have we betrayed our trust with our efforts? Or as Madison hoped, and as the Holy Father seems to believe, has our American model of religious liberty added luster to our country?” Professor Garnett then described the role of religious liberty in the United States as “both vital and vulnerable…robust, but incomplete” […] “Our church-state relationship is exemplary, but confused.” But, he pointed out, what remains as true today as when our country was founded is “that there are many different models or ways of thinking about freedom of religion, under and through law.” Garnett offered an overview of American religious liberty law and of the American model of “healthy” or “positive” secularism. In so doing, he provided the audience with an outline of some of the different forms of religious freedom and his idea that these different forms create a “competitive dialectic” in the American method.

The final two speakers were the brilliant independent scholar and author Lucy Beckett presenting on “Tragedy as the Unconcealment of Being: a Literary Reflection on Sacrifice and the Common Good,” and the University of Notre Dame's Michael Baxter presenting on “God, Notre Dame, Country: Rethinking the Mission of Catholic Higher Education in the United States.” Professor Baxter's talk left the audience questioning what it means to be a Catholic American. In the question and answer round afterward there didn't seem to be a clear consensus as to the answer, although per usual, lively discussion took place.

The conference ended with Mass in the Basilica followed by a dinner. At the Mass the Center's long time friend Bishop John D'Arcy concelebrated with the newly announced Bishop Kevin Rhoades. In his address to the congregation after Mass, Bishop Rhoades acknowledged the Center for Ethics & Culture conference taking place over the weekend on campus, citing it as example of the contributions Notre Dame can make to the church. He said a review of the conference schedule "revealed the depths of study and reflection that you've been engaged in." At the dinner, David Solomon estimated the conference to be "our best one yet." We are hoping for yet another great conference next year!

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