MSW's Outstanding Layman of 2009

In this final week of 2009, this blogpost will be bestowing my awards, alas without honoraria, to the year’s outstanding Catholic layperson, outstanding Catholic legislator and outstanding Catholic government executive. Our friend, blogger extraordinaire Rocco Palmo, always chooses a churchman of the year, so we leave the clergy to his adjudication.

The easiest of the three to choose was the outstanding Catholic layperson: Judge John T. Noonan, who came to the rescue after Ambassador Mary Ann Glendon declined the Laetare Medal, awarded annually by the University of Notre Dame at their commencement exercises. Noonan had previously been a recipient of the prestigious award in 1984 and he stepped forward again to deliver the Laetare speech, sharing the stage with President Obama and trying to turn what had become an awkward moment into something more and something better. In the event, he delivered one of the most memorable speeches of any commencement, one that should rank with Secretary of State George Marshall’s commencement address at Harvard in 1947, not in terms of their immediate political significance but in terms of the way both men used the moment to raise the intellectual climate of the nation.

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The speech was elegant. His disquisition on the relationship of two great Americans, Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln, set the stage for one of the most concise, yet thoughtful, expositions of the rights and demands of conscience yet spoken in the English language: "By conscience, as you graduates of 2009 know, we apprehend what God asks of us and what the love of our neighbor requires. More than the voice of your mother, more than an emotional impulse, this mysterious, impalpable, imprescriptible, indestructible, and indispensable guide governs our moral life. Each one is different. You may suggest what my conscience should say, but you cannot tell me what my conscience must say. That's the rub when your moral vision is clear and the other fellow's is cloudy. You become impatient, the more frustrated if the other fellow is a friend - an old friend or a potential friend. Why can't he or she see it? To satisfy that frustration by shunning or denouncing your unseeing companion will accomplish little beyond expressing your own exasperation."

Judge Noonan went on to address Mrs. Glendon’s absence not only with a similar elegance of speech but with a generosity of spirit that I confess I could not muster. He said, "One friend is not here today, whose absence I regret. By a lonely, courageous, and conscientious choice she declined the honor she deserved. I respect her decision. At the same time, I am here to confirm that all consciences are not the same; that we can recognize great goodness in our nation's president without defending all of his multitudinous decisions; and that we can rejoice on this wholly happy occasion." Yes, yes, the syntax is stunningly beautiful but it is the moral precision that excites, a moral precision that was so utterly lacking in so much of the denunciations of Notre Dame’s decision to award an honorary degree to President Obama.

What better send off to students than such an example of intellectual and moral fullness. Noonan’s speech left me speechless. He hit every note right. He took an awkward moment and not only explained it but elevated it, showing how awkwardness is sometimes an invitation to appreciate moral complexity and to affirm human dignity. It was the finest speech I have heard in my lifetime. Amidst all the many fine contributions by Catholic laymen and women to the life of the nation and the life of the Church, this was the finest.

 

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Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 11 months ago
The speech by Judge Noonan at Notre Dame commencement reminded me why Catholic education at the university level is so important. Thank you for again praising the way he siezed that particular moment.
Kevin Jam
7 years 11 months ago
Fantastic speech. Nice pick!
7 years 11 months ago
I think it should have been the other way around. It is Mary Ann Glendon, not Judge Noonan, who stands out far and above the fray.
Jeff Bagnell
7 years 11 months ago
I agree with Maria.  Doesn't Judge Noonan hold that artificial contraception is ok?  I seem to remember that. 
Michael Liddy
7 years 11 months ago
This is just another pathetic defense of Notre Dame. The Catholic Church has repeatedly told us about the grave moral evil of abortion. It was not appropriate, nor was it a good example to the impressionable young, for a Catholic institution to award an honorary law degree to someone who has fought tooth and nail for 3 decades to defend and expand pro-choice law and repeal and block pro-life law. Abortion law has been one of the top issues in his life, if not his top issue, from his days as law professor ("Roe at the center of my lesson plan") to work as a State Senator (partial birth abortion, parental rights and consent, etc) and a US Senator (FOCA Prime Sponsor, Partial Birth Abortion, 100% Pro-Choice Voting Record, 0% Pro-Life Voting Record, etc), and now as the US President (Embryonic Stem-Cell Research, Mexico City, DC Funding, Abortion Funding in Health Care, Oversees Funding of Abortion, Appointees from NARAL, Emily's List, Planned Parenthood, Pro-Choice Judicial Appointees, what conscience protection?, etc, etc, etc, etc ...).


kevin brennan
7 years 11 months ago
i could not have been more impressed by the speech but, until now, i have been disappointed that noonan has not received more praise for it.  i was disappointed especially that president obama did not respond more enthusiastically and directly to noonan.  as noonan walked back to his seat, obama did not seem to engage him with any enthusiasm at all.  (and i thought that obama should have grabbed noonan, looked in his eyes, and thanked him for the privilege of listening to him.)
noonan did more than give a great speech.  he showed us how to speak the truth - with candor, yet with genuine respect for the other.  for one, noonan did not shy away from speaking the truth about abortion with the president sitting nearby:
''For half a century now, a great debate has gone on in this country about a matter touching the inviolability of human life in a mother's womb, the rights of a woman with respect to her own body, the duties of doctors, the obligations of parents, and the role of government in a decision that is patently personal and significantly social.  The matter of this debate was too serious to be settled by pollsters and pundits; too delicate to be decided by physical force or by banners and slogans, pickets and placards; too basic for settlement to be based on a vote by judges.  The matter was settled - so it seemed - thirty-six years ago. The settlement was still-born. Debate intensified. Debate is not now about to close.''
i hope that your appreciation of the speech will spur others to look more closely at the speech itself and at noonan's other writings.  for one, his book the lustre of our country is as inspiring and as enjoyable as his speech was.
thank you.
7 years 11 months ago
Dear JSB-Noonan does support contraception. See

John T. Noonan, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966); reprinted in an enlarged 2d edition [1986].
7 years 11 months ago
Dear JSB-Noonan does support contraception. See

John T. Noonan, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966); reprinted in an enlarged 2d edition [1986].
7 years 11 months ago

Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by Catholic Theologians and Canonists
Robert O'Connell
7 years 11 months ago
The caption, MSW's Outstanding Layman of 2009, prompted a spontaneous reaction for me: Mary Ann Glendon. Then I read the article.

MSW strikes me as somewhat consistently antagonistic to important moral teachings of the Church.

Can't America do better?

The comments by Maria, JSB and Michael Liddy certainly show that better talent can be found. I'd fire Mr. Winters forthwith and nominate Maria to replace him.
Jeff Bagnell
7 years 11 months ago
A very bright man, an excellent jurist, but he has an erroneous concept of the nature and limits of conscience.
I will never forget being in a class he taught many years ago, in which he pronounced that the Church "had changed its teaching on contraception," as a result of his work on the 1967 lay commission that was advising Paul VI.  I thought this was quite an accomplishment....especially since it never happened.
Jeff Bagnell
7 years 11 months ago
to Mr. Brennan's comments, I would only add that the probable reason Obama did not embrace Noonan was because of how effectively Noonan exposed Roe for the judicial atrocity that it is.  He called it the equivalent of a still-born baby.  
Those are fighting words in the law school academic community, believe me.  I will give Noonan credit for saying that in front of him and every other advocate for legalized abortion on demand who was sitting there.
Jim McCrea
7 years 11 months ago
There are times when I read some of the hateful comments on sites such as here that I believe that contraception needs to be improved and practiced much more often.
Jeff Bagnell
7 years 11 months ago
The truth comes out.  The man wishes that anyone disagreeing with him would not exist.  A model of Christian charity, very impressive.  Did you get that from Karl Rahner?
Michael Liddy
7 years 11 months ago
Jim McCrea - can you please let us know which comments you view as hateful? Thank you.

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