Saturday afternoon football games always feature an ad for the universities engaged in gridiron combat. These ads usually consist of pictures of happy co-eds frolicking on well trimmed lawns interspersed with shots of students in laboratories or studying at the library. Sometimes, a famous professor is mentioned, sometimes a winning NCAA team, sometimes the great location of the campus.
This past Saturday, however, a national audience tuned into the Notre Dame v. Navy game saw a different ad that focused on adult stem cell research at Notre Dame. In that ad, the voice-over describes the research being conducted using stem cells from zebra fish, which have regenerative properties the cells of a mammal lack. But, within the ad, came this sentence: "As a Catholic University, Notre Dame is committed to cutting edge research that respects the dignity of human life from conception until natural death and does not engage in human embryonic stem cell research."
Last spring, you may recall, all manner of abuse was heaped on Notre Dame, and especially on its President, Father John Jenkins. He was accused of essentially winking at the Church’s teaching on the dignity of human life by inviting the President of the United States to receive an honorary degree and deliver the commencement address. Father Jenkins made clear that the invitation, and the degree, certainly were not intended as an endorsement of the President’s views on abortion or embryonic stem cell research, and at the ceremony itself, with the President sitting next to him, Father Jenkins reiterated the Church’s teaching. A nationally televised audience watched that moment too, an audience that would not have been watching if the graduation speaker had been someone other than the President.
Saturday’s commercial, as well as the work it highlighted, shows the depth of Notre Dame’s commitment to life issues. But, it shows something else too. It shows, in the finest tradition of Christian humanism, that it is not enough to protest. It is not enough to whine or throw up our hands at the ways our culture fails to honor and promote the dignity of human life. People who suffer from degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s Disease want a cure, not a bumper sticker. Notre Dame, by engaging in this work and telling a nationwide audience of football viewers about, is giving a profound and laudable witness to the Church’s teaching. Will the university’s critics applaud this ad?
One of them actually has. Notre Dame law professor Rick Garnett sent me the link to the ad and has written about it at his blog, Mirror of Justice. Garnett also provided the most thoughtful, non-inflammatory criticism of the university’s decision to honor the President. Garnett and I are as likely to disagree as to agree on any given political issue, but he writes from a profound commitment to the Church, a commitment that includes a willingness to engage in civil discussion and thoughtful criticism. He could not be more different from some of the fringe bloggers who uncharitably demean those with whom they disagree. Nor does Garnett indulge a nostalgic Catholic sectarianism. Neither does the University at which he labors.
Notre Dame has done more than witness to the Church’s teaching about the dignity of human life. It has given another example of what Pope Benedict calls the "great et, et." When Catholics confront technological innovations or so-called advances in research that are ethically impermissible, we do not damn technology or scholarship. We engage it and find ethically permissible ways to solve human problems. The tradition of Catholic theology is to avoid "either/or" formulations in favor of "both/and" formulations. This is a profoundly humane instinct. Whatever is authentically human, such as the desire to find cures for horrible diseases, must be embraced and it is the proper, and noble, task of a Catholic University to bring both the light of reason and the light of faith to the search for humane answers and cures.
The Notre Dame football team lost on Saturday, but the University itself won.