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.
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.