Keynote Address to University of Notre Dame Advisory Councils - Civil Discourse

Fall 2012

Thank you, Lou. I want to thank all of you for your remarkable generosity of time, effort and support for Notre Dame.
Our goal at Notre Dame is to be a great Catholic University – a truly great university that is also what Pope John Paul said a Catholic university is meant to be – “a primary and privileged place for a fruitful dialogue between the Gospel and culture.”
In today’s world, this is a unique and precious mission. That is why Notre Dame is not for any of us just a job, or a duty, or a charity, or even only a University – Notre Dame is a calling…and each of us has been called.
We each come to this calling in different ways, bringing different gifts, and accepting different responsibilities.
When I was a student of philosophy here as an undergraduate, and later as a seminarian, and then as a priest, and a graduate student in Philosophy at Oxford, I was willing to serve wherever I was called. I never imagined I would be called to serve here at Notre Dame, as President.
I didn’t see myself in that role, and I’m pretty sure no one else did either – with the possible exception of my mother.
I can tell you now in my eighth year as President that I did not at the start fully understand the scale and complexity of this position – both the demand it makes and the opportunities it affords.
Whether people are inside the Notre Dame family or outside it, whether they love this University or love to criticize it, Notre Dame is not seen through the same lens as other institutions. There is a special expectation, a special responsibility carved out for this University, and consequently also for the person who serves as its President.

The President of Notre Dame has a role in three worlds:

  • First, he is President of a leading university, a place whose work is teaching, discovery and rigorous, respectful debate;

  • Second, he is a priest and leader of a prominent Catholic institution, an integral part of a wider community of faith, which is the source of so many of the convictions that shape who we are, how we live and what we hope for;

  • Third, he is a leader of a great American institution, part of this nation, this extraordinary evolving expression of human freedom whose mission remains “… to establish justice … promote the general welfare … and secure the blessings of liberty.”

These roles in three worlds place on the President of Notre Dame demands that other University Presidents do not bear; but they also give him opportunities that other Presidents do not enjoy. And so I have had to ask myself: how can I identify the most promising opportunities that come with this position and use them in ways that will best serve—as we say here--God, country and Notre Dame.

I was taken by a recent book written by Harvard’s Robert Putnam and Notre Dame’s own David Campbell, entitled American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.‖The authors showed that a strong religious life, regardless of one’s denomination, is correlated with a wide range of positive social behaviors. Yet, the authors also unflinchingly pointed out that deep religious conviction is also correlated with less tolerance for dissenting views. 

There was plenty of evidence that some of the most divisive, polarizing issues in American political life are closely tied to strong religious conviction.

Passionate conviction is indispensable to doing good and difficult deeds, yet it can be corrupted by pride and lead to division and hatred.

So I wondered: How can the ultimacy that characterizes our religious convictions remain the motive for living holy and generous lives devoted to doing good, and not serve as a tool to create divisions and demonize opponents?

In the spring of last year, I was invited to give a lecture at the Aquinas Center of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. I vigorously defended the passionate expression of our deepest religious convictions, and at the same time I called for a new ethic of public discourse.

I argued that truly Christian attempts to engage one another in public debate should take the form of an effort to persuade. And if I want to persuade others, how can I vilify them? People are not won over by those who attack their character.

I also suggested that adherents of secular viewpoints have proven just as inflexible and resistant to contrary argument as the most ardent religious believers, and therefore a fair and open consideration of contrary perspectives is a skill everyone needs to cultivate, whether one is a believer or not.

This Aquinas lecture and its message led to an invitation I received to speak this May on this theme at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. It also led to an invitation to join the Commission on Presidential Debates, which attempts to foster reasoned, civil discussion of the issues that matter to the nation. 

During this period, as I was developing these ideas and making these ideas and making these speeches, some colleagues I respect suggested that I might write a book on how to combine passionate conviction with a more civil discourse.

So I put together a book proposal based on the ideas in these speeches. Random House has accepted the book. I am working on it now, and it should be published next year. The working title is: CONVICTION: The Power and Peril of Our Passionate Beliefs.


The challenge here in the United States is by now obvious to everyone.

Last year, in Washington, D.C., our elected officials nearly shut down the United States government in April, nearly defaulted on debt in August, nearly shut down the government over disaster relief in September, failed to reach an accord for debt reduction in November, and forced another showdown over the payroll tax in December.

Then the election year began, and we’ve been through an election season marked by acrimony and hostility from all sides.

A Washington Post Kaiser Family Foundation poll taken this August tells us – in the words of the Post: (Quote) “the gulf between Republicans and Democrats has never been wider. Partisan polarization now presents a potentially insurmountable barrier to governing for whoever wins the White House in November.”‖ (Unquote)

But it’s important to see that the insurmountable barrier to governing does not come from policy differences alone. It comes also – perhaps even more so – from the refusal to bridge the differences because of the hostility between the two sides. The lack of civility is not just a crisis of courtesy. It’s more dangerous than that. When you treat the other side with contempt, they dig in. Neither side gives an inch. Both sides embrace a standoff. And the country stalls.

The American people see the incivility and the problems that come with it, and there are a number of views about what to do. Most of the viewpoints pivot from two opposing and equally mistaken assumptions. One group believes that conviction is the most important consideration, and to advance your convictions you can disregard civility toward those who don’t share them. The other group believes that, for the sake of getting along, people should leave behind their most passionate convictions.

We need to reject this dichotomy.

You know, when I was a young boy in Catholic grade school, I wanted to be a martyr.

It was not as noble as it sounds. You see, I was taught in Catholic catechism that even people who live very good lives likely have to endure the purifying fires of purgatory before they can get to heaven. But martyrs, because they offer the ultimate sacrifice of their own lives, go directly to heaven. It seemed to me that the momentary pain of a violent death was preferable to a long stay in purgatory – which is why I wanted to be a martyr. I deserved an A for logic and an F for religion.

But as I grew beyond these schoolboy calculations, I became genuinely inspired by the clarity of purpose in a martyr’s life. Of course, very few of us are called on to die for a belief. But all of us may be called to live for a belief. Only profound conviction can give life meaning. That’s why I can never embrace a call that says others must soften their convictions.

At the same time, in our democratic, pluralistic society, any faithful witness to the truths we embrace MUST include a commitment to civil, respectful dialogue with those who disagree.

We need an ethic of both passionate conviction and profound respect.

Let me give a positive example from current political life (there are enough negative ones).

I was impressed with the words and actions last year of Dr. Tom Coburn, the conservative United States Senator from Oklahoma. He held a town hall meeting in the spring of 2011. He told his constituents that he was “180 degrees in opposition”‖ to Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi on the extension of unemployment benefits, but that (quote) “she was a nice lady."

Some of the people in the hall booed him. Later, a number of radio talk show hosts rebuked him. Why were these voices attacking a reliable and effective advocate of their views? Well, if you believe victory depends on demonizing the other side, and a colleague instead says something kind, he is offering aid to the enemy.

To those critics, Senator Coburn’s civil discourse was seen as surrender.

But the Senator stood on his conviction. He talked to Bloomberg TV and was asked about President Obama. He said: ”I love the man. I don’t want him to be president… I disagree with him adamantly on 95% of the issues, but that does not mean he and I can’t have a great relationship."

My contention is that deep conviction is absolutely essential to a good moral life. But it needs to be matched with respect for those who oppose our views. We sometimes think we’re advancing our views by demonizing those who oppose us. But we’re not. We’re actually hurting our cause. Because the uglier our discourse becomes, the less room there is for reasoned debate – and reasoned debate, in a democracy, is the only way to make a case for what we believe. If public discourse is poisoned so that no one listens to anyone, then we’ve lost the very forum we need to advance our values.

My argument relies in part on the conception of the common good, as developed by an intellectual hero of mine, St. Thomas Aquinas.

The common good is famously hard to define, but it demands a will to cooperate that is essential to providing society’s members the elements of a good life.

What does this mean for today? Even though we do not share all the same moral convictions, we all share a common public arena that is affected by the ways we express those convictions. Whether or not it leads to agreement on anything, expressing ourselves with respect toward people whose views we oppose will contribute to the common good by promoting a better public arena for all of us.

So I will make the case that we should move toward a new ethic of public discourse—or perhaps I should say a renewed ethic – by drawing a distinction between the content of a conviction and the expression of a conviction. In a diverse society, with so many opposing convictions, I don’t think it is likely that we will soon come to an agreement on a shared moral framework for establishing the content of our convictions. But I do believe – given our shared reliance on the common good – that we can come to an agreement on a common ethic for how we express our convictions.

This ethic will not call on anyone to abandon their convictions, but only to add one: the conviction that people ought to be treated with respect so that we all do all we can to nurture the common good, which is the source of both material and spiritual blessings.

Much of the inspiration for this thinking I owe to Pope John XXIII and the work of the Second Vatican Council. It was in the discussions

and documents of Vatican II that the Church opened its arms to the diversity of the world’s religious faiths without sacrificing its devotion to the truth of the Catholic Church.

Vatican II reflected the hope and optimism of Pope John. He welcomed the rise of science and what it might do for humanity. He was open to the views of others. He solicited suggestions from Bishops around the world. He made sure everyone present at the Council had a chance to speak. He invited non-Catholic observers. He welcomed the media.

And because acrimony in our society is not limited to believers, it cannot be eased by an appeal to religious beliefs and traditions alone. Fortunately, the truths of human relations reflected and propagated in Vatican II are easily seen and applied in the secular world as well. American history is rich with such examples, including lessons to be drawn from the Constitutional Convention, presided over by George Washington in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787.

The Convention nearly collapsed at several points, owing to disagreements among various states and factions. When the Constitution was complete, it was sent to Congress with a letter signed by George Washington. The letter read in part:

“In all our deliberations … we kept steadily in our view that which appears to us the greatest interest of every true American: the consolidation of our Union, in which is involved our prosperity, felicity, safety, perhaps our national existence. This important consideration… led each state in the Convention to be less rigid on points of inferior magnitude…and thus the Constitution which we now present is the result of a spirit of amity and of that mutual deference and concession which the peculiarity of our political situation rendered indispensable." 

Clearly, there is precedent in America for making the kind of wrenching decisions that give neither side exactly what it wants – unless what it wants is to hold the country together.

This is a difficult time in the life of the nation. Faced with daunting challenges, we are struggling to learn how to live with people we cannot persuade. There is no example of a society that has managed this better with greater diversity. So we are pilgrims in a sense – trying to find our way to a better place and to lead others there after us.

This is a cause and a mission worthy of all of us – as members of a university community, as Catholics with a commitment to faith and reason, as Americans committed to freedom and democracy, as global citizens committed to peace and justice.

For the sake of every one of these communities of which we are a part – we have a duty to defend the power and importance of a broad, rigorous, passionate and respectful exchange of views – drawing inspiration from the teachings of the gospel, from the tradition of Aristotle and Aquinas, from the history of the United States.

I believe we can succeed. I believe it’s essential that we try.

This is far more than just my cause. As I began to think about this issue, it became so clear. This is far beyond any single person’s pursuit. Human reason – the capacity for honest debate, the ability to learn from others – is a gift of God, a path to truth, and the means for seeking the common good in secular life. Preserving and expanding this gift is a cause bred into the mission of Notre Dame. It has been here from the beginning.

It meets the highest, earliest aspirations of Fr. Sorin, who nine days after arriving at the empty, snow-covered site that would become Notre Dame, wrote to his superior Fr. Moreau:

“This college will be one of the most powerful means of doing good in this country.”

God bless you all. And God bless Notre Dame.