Lifewatch: Epistle to the Hoyas

This open letter to President Clinton was drafted by Hadley Arkes, the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College. He served several years as the Visiting Leavey Professor at Georgetown University, and he is the parent of a graduate of Georgetown in the class of 1990. He has preserved his connection to Georgetown through his colleagues, friends, and former students. He invites those who share this bond—and the sentiments of this draft—to add their names to this appeal and join him in a further publication of this letter. (His address is 206 Converse Hall, Amherst College, Amherst, MA 01002.)

President Clinton:

We write to you as members of a community of faculty, students, administrators, alumni, and parents of students—a community bound together in our devotion to Georgetown University. It must be a matter of pride that you are the first son of Georgetown, and indeed the first graduate of a Catholic university, to become President of the United States. You are likely, of course, to be received with a flourish when you return to Georgetown this spring for your twenty-fifth reunion. But it is precisely because you have drawn so much attention to us that you have created for us—as you must surely realize—the most pronounced moral awkwardness.

From your first days in office, you have made it a prime object of your administration to sweep away any restrictions in the law that may still inhibit the killing of children in the womb, at any stage of the pregnancy, for any reason whatsoever. You are the first President from a Catholic university, and yet you are also the first President of the United States to treat the “right to an abortion” not merely as a legal, but a moral, right. You are the first President to consider abortion, not merely as a permissible, private choice, but as nothing less than a “public good,” which deserves to be promoted with public funds and with the weight of federal patronage.

Within 48 hours of your arrival in office, you restored federal funds to the counseling and promotion of abortion; you extended the performance of abortion to the military and diplomatic outposts of this country abroad; and you authorized the use of tissue from unconsenting patients, from unborn children who are destroyed in elective abortions.

All of these moves have been attended with a language that describes abortion as regrettable or undesirable. And yet none of them contains any measures designed to discourage abortion or to suggest that abortion is anything but a positive good. These measures have described you; they mark off a design, and what is revealed in that design is an intention to make the promotion of abortion a permanent part of the laws of the United States. Behind that design, then, is an understanding that must reject at the root everything taught by the Catholic Church about the grounds on which we assign, or withdraw, from human beings their standing as humans, and their claims to legal protection.

You know enough about Catholicism to know that the teaching on this matter does not stand among the secondary or peripheral concerns of the Church. Protecting unborn lives is one of the most abiding commitments of the Church; it stands on a higher plane than the interest, say, in parochial schools or in the taxation of property. You are quite sensitive also to the meaning of gestures and symbols; you understand as well as anyone the lesson that would be portrayed publicly if you were received at Georgetown with the fullness of celebration, without a hint of reservation: the public would be given to understand that the differences between you and the Church on the matter of abortion are simply not, in the scale of things, all that important.

And of course, what is taught to the rest of the world would be taught as well to Catholics who are untutored in the teachings of their own Church. That is the condition we used to describe as giving scandal: Catholics who have formed their convictions on this matter in accord with the Church would be encouraged to treat these teachings as nothing serious, nothing that deserves to strain relations among friends. And those Catholics uninstructed in the teachings of their church would now be misinstructed.

You have said yourself that you were received at Georgetown with generosity, by Catholics who welcomed a stranger. Would you repay that hospitality now by compelling the university to pretend that there is, between us, no difference that matters profoundly? Would you ask us to detach ourselves from our own convictions about the wrongness of abortion? Or would you ask us simply to regard them as nothing more than another set of opinions, or perhaps even expressions of personal taste, which hold for no one but ourselves?

The celebration of your return, without a hint of reservation, would proclaim a policy of indifference. If students and faculty come to absorb that policy—if they find, in your acts on abortion, no reasons to withhold their praise—then something will have changed in the character of Georgetown, something will have altered in the things that hold us together.

You studied with Father Joseph Sebes, one of the most beloved and respected scholars at Georgetown. It has been said that the late Father Sebes had a real affection for you, and we are sure that he would have been proud to welcome you back to the campus. But those of us who knew Father Sebes well are obliged to add that he would have been gravely disappointed by your actions regarding abortion. Father Sebes would have welcomed you warmly, but he probably would have requested, also, that some time be set aside for a serious conversation. He would have conducted the conversation with that rare combination of frankness and affection, a combination possible only among friends.

May we suggest, then, that your reunion this spring with Georgetown should resemble the character of that reunion you might have had with Father Sebes? You should be received at your school with the joy that is accorded to a son returning home. But that return should also be the occasion for the kind of conversation that is more likely to occur at an academic place, and at a university with the character of Georgetown. There are several members of the faculty at Georgetown who could present the issue of abortion in a manner that is medically informed and philosophically compelling. They might participate with you and your aides in a serious discussion on the issue of abortion and its standing right now in the measures of your administration. Or, a panel of these professors could present to you a systematic case, informed by philosophy and embryology, and they could then be open to your queries and your serious probing.

This arrangement should not be subverted through the contrivance of “balancing” the panel by rounding up the usual assortment of Catholics who are “pro-choice.” We do not claim that the traditional teaching of the Church is upheld by all Catholics, or even by all members of the faculty at Georgetown, though many of the non-Catholics among us concur with that moral teaching. Our aim here is not to provide a cross-section of opinion, but to offer the most compelling statement for the position that continues to be the position of the Church and the position of your university as a Catholic university.

Last December you were willing to preside over a “seminar” on the economy. For several days, you listened to presentations and asked searching questions. If you were willing to absorb yourself in that way for the sake of getting clearer on the state of the economy, why would you not devote part of one day to the task of understanding the nature of those beings who are being destroyed now in abortions?

With this kind of discussion, you may truly feel as though you have returned to Georgetown. You may recall the sense of engagement you had known in the presence of gifted teachers. But more than that, this arrangement would deal with a serious dispute in a manner that is most fitting to an academic place: we could mark the differences between us with the offering of arguments and the giving of reasons. There could be no more telling sign of respect among people who find themselves at odds. But at the same time, it is the kind of conversation that can only deepen the affection for a son of Georgetown who has the largeness of spirit to enter upon it.

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