Notre Dame’s Culture of Death Conference
by Patrick Henry Reardon
Sponsored by Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics & Culture, a conference entitled “A Culture of Death” was conducted on that campus from October 12th to 14th this past year, bringing together an impressive array of speakers well known in several areas of concern conveniently lumped together as “pro-life”: abortion, fetal tissue research, euthanasia, warfare, and capital punishment, along with such related subjects as care for the disabled, Third World debt, and (brace yourself) feminism. The event included four plenary presentations and 15 concurrent sessions, some of these with several short papers.
One of the better speakers at the conference, John W. Carlson of Creighton University, remarking that its thematic title, “Culture of Death,” was coined by Pope John Paul II, drew attention to the fact that the pope employed quotation marks around the expression. He did this, Carlson suggested, for two reasons. First, to indicate that it is a neologism still in the process of being defined, and second, to suggest its ironic and paradoxical character. What the Holy Father calls “the culture of death,” Carlson remarked, is a kind of anti-culture, a veritable war on culture.
In this respect, and to the credit of Notre Dame’s David Solomon and the other planners of the conference, some of its finest parts were devoted to considerations of culture itself. These included the short papers of Donald Uitvlugt on St. Augustine’s City of God, E. Jane Doering on Simone Weil’s L’Enracinement, and J. Daryl Charles on Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm. Also to be included in this number were the very instructive lectures of Ralph McInerny, who presented a magisterial critique of various Nietzschean themes in literature, and Thomas Hibbs, who explored the nihilism of contemporary movies and television.
Of the four plenary presentations, I would rank two as good. First, that of H. Tristram Englehardt, Jr., of Rice University, “After Christendom: The Moralization of Religion and the Culture of Death.” This was the only lecture at the conference, in my opinion, that consistently dealt with the questions of life and death in a properly Christian doctrinal context, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Dr. Englehardt spoke of the impossibility of having a just culture without having a holy culture, and the impossibility of a holy culture unless founded on correct worship. He spoke, in turn, of the impossibility of morality without metaphysics, and of metaphysics without liturgy, arguing that the current culture of death finds one of its historical roots in the Kantian “moralization of religion.” Touchstone is grateful for his and Notre Dame’s permission to publish this presentation, and the aforementioned essay by Dr. McInerny, in a future edition of our journal.
The other plenary presentation that I would rank as good was that of Dr. Alasdair MacIntyre of Notre Dame, “A Culture of Choices and Compartmentalization.” In this lecture he contended that ours is a “choice culture” in the sense that choice has now become a cultural end in itself. Choice is no longer thought of as revelatory of character, but as including the very standard of character. That is to say, choice has become its own self-justified norm. It no longer reveals character but only individual preference. This alteration in perspective, MacIntyre contended, alters the very nature of public discourse, since it recognizes no accepted standards of choice except that of choice itself. This breakdown of public discourse leads, in turn, to an increasing compartmentalizing of our lives. With respect to death, he said, we are nearly unable to consider death in se, but only under certain compartmentalized categories, either as “tragic loss,” or as an economic factor, or as a component of social function, or as data in medical experiments, and so forth.
Of the “concurrent sessions” that I was able to attend, I would classify all of them as good. Besides the lectures on literature noted earlier, special mention is deserved for the papers by Hans Reinders on the plight of the disabled, Helen Alvaré and Gerard Bradley on abortion legislation, Gilbert Meilaender on stem cell research, and Paul E. Sigmund on Third World debt.
The section entitled “Christian Feminism and the Culture of Death” was also good. There were three speakers. Helen Alvaré elaborated three specific roles for Christian women against the culture of death: the restoration of “the sense of service” (a sense notably lacking in the kind of feminism represented by Patricia Ireland, she remarked), the safeguarding of unborn children, and bridging the political divide that tends to separate “women’s concerns” from the rest of public life. Margaret Hogan described the intellectual foundations of totalitarianism (personal autonomy and the lust for power), arguing for their correction by a return to a sense of our shared “creaturehood” and the duties that arise out of our relationships in an ordered liberty. Maura Ryan, lamenting that “women’s concerns” in the Church have been excessively preoccupied with such matters as “reproduction” (this reviewer would prefer the traditional Christian word “procreation”) and the quest of women’s ordination, urged a wider range of moral concerns. She especially called for a greater emphasis on care of the elderly.
Finally, we come to the only two bad papers in the conference, but both of these, alas, were plenary presentations for the larger audiences in the two evenings. This latter arrangement doubtless had something to do with the greater notoriety enjoyed by the speakers themselves.
The opening lecture of the conference on the first night was given by Judge John T. Noonan of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, “Cooperation in Intentionally Inflicting Death.” In the first half of his presentation Judge Noonan argued that all involvement in our contemporary culture implies various levels of participation in a “domestic slaughter,” a “conspiracy against life,” a “chain of cooperation” in the inflicting of violence. Sometimes, he reasoned, this cooperation is formal and intentional; in which cases, it is always sinful. Sometimes, however, it is merely systemic or even coerced. A common example of the latter is that of the taxpayer, who is forced to provide the means for the official and publicly sanctioned forms of inflicting death. In this treatment Noonan virtually dismissed the weight of Holy Scripture in answering moral questions, quoted papal documents only when they supported his own case, and appealed mainly to such moral authorities as Shakespeare and Graham Greene. Relying heavily on minimalist principles established in classical casuistry, the first half of his presentation could have been entitled “How to Get to Heaven with the Seat of Your Pants Burned Out.”
In the applications of these principles in the second half of his lecture, moreover, Noonan’s choice of topics was even more disappointing. He addressed only two subjects, the handgun industry and capital punishment, on both of which subjects his views fell well within the current biases of liberal politics. Noonan’s determination to remain “politically correct” was maintained against several challenges during the subsequent question and answer forum. Indeed, most of his answers were manifest evasions. Finally, after three times dodging uncomfortable questions about abortion, Noonan turned remarkably aggressive when J. Daryl Charles, from the floor, rather gently questioned His Honor’s position on capital punishment. It was, on the whole, a very disappointing performance, the last particular of which was to be repeated by the plenary speaker on the following night.
This was Sister Helen Prejean, who gave the second lecture that I would describe as bad. This well-known nun-activist opponent of the death penalty spoke to a very full house and received the conference’s only standing ovation (from an audience largely composed of Notre Dame undergraduates). Inasmuch as I am myself opposed to capital punishment and, moreover, very appreciative of the popular movie about Sister Helen, Dead Man Walking, I was quite prepared to be receptive and sympathetic to what she had to say.
Perhaps this receptivity on my part rendered my disappointment the more severe, as Sister Helen treated us to one of the most blatant performances of self-aggrandizement I have ever heard. We learned all about my book, my movie, my play, my opera. We listened to endless comments about Sister Helen’s friendships with movie stars (all of them pro-abortion, as best I could determine), her travels and political agitation on behalf of convicted murderers, her self-declared influence in changing the current pope’s position on capital punishment, her 1998 nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, and so on.
The most conspicuous deficiency of Sister Helen’s presentation, however, was the total lack of any logical or rational coherence in her opposition to capital punishment. It was all emotion; in the course of her two-hour presentation I heard no two sentences that together formed a reasonably arranged argument on the subject. This intellectual deficiency was accentuated in the question and answer session afterwards, when J. Daryl Charles rose once again to query just how her opposition to the death penalty was to be adjusted philosophically with Western Christendom’s traditional position on this matter. This young professor from Taylor University, having endured a public browbeating by Judge Noonan the previous evening, was about to get slapped around again. Sister Helen, who had just spent two hours discoursing on her infinite mercy and boundless compassion, proceeded to shout down the question of Dr. Charles.
While we are at it, I believe it legitimate to question the propriety of Sister Helen Prejean’s inclusion in a pro-life conference at all. While I am not a proponent of what is called a “consistent pro-life ethic,” even those who espouse the latter theory tend generally to admit that it is less evil to kill a condemned murderer after a fair trial than to kill an unborn baby without one. Exactly what, then, does Sister Helen think about the current slaughter of unborn babies?
I am not the only one who would like to know. In 1997, for example, another opponent of the death penalty, Bishop Nicholas Dattilo of the Roman Catholic diocese of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, was so troubled by Sister Helen’s ambiguity on abortion that he declined to participate in an anti-capital punishment program in which she was a featured speaker. Perhaps Bishop Dattilo was unfavorably impressed by the equivocating answer that Sister Helen gave when queried about abortion the previous year (cf. Interview by Robert Holton in Our Sunday Visitor for April 14, 1996): “Abortion is much more complex than a mere choice, because the crosshairs of this decision are in the woman’s body, and the woman decides this. I think for us to really answer the abortion question so that women don’t have them, we really have to look seriously at the whole thing of birth control, family planning, and not having unwanted pregnancies.” Perhaps the bishop of Harrisburg, like myself, considered this to be a pretty mealy-mouthed response.
Then, arriving home from the Notre Dame conference, I found another piece of mail advertising yet another conference dealing with moral concerns, this one to be held in Milwaukee this past November and sponsored by Call to Action, an openly radical group on the furthest fringe of the Roman Catholic left. Once again Sister Helen Prejean was listed as a featured speaker along with other activist nuns like Sister Elizabeth Johnson (author of She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse), Sister Jeannine Gramick (editor of Voices of Hope: Positive Catholic Writings on Lesbian/Gay Issues), and Sister Mary Jo Meadows (author of That I May See: A Spiritual Psychology of Meditation), who is, according to the website on the conference, both a Roman Catholic and a Theravadan Buddhist nun.
During that same month of last year, Sister Helen was likewise one of the more prominent speakers at a conference in Asheville, North Carolina, promoted by Jeanette Stokes’s Resource Center for Women and Ministry in the South. This is a feminist speakers’ bureau whose autumn calendar last year also included such names as Rosemary Radford Ruether, Carter Heyward, Rita Nakashima Brock, and Mari Castellanos. Some of these names were part of the infamous Re-imagining Conference held in Minneapolis in 1995. Such appears to be the company that Sister Helen keeps.
In closing, the Notre Dame conference “A Culture of Death” was, in my opinion, an overwhelming success. Nonetheless, I do suggest that, in future conferences sponsored by that great institution, greater care might be taken to filter out the more deadly elements.
“A Culture of Death” was the first in a triennial conference series to be hosted by the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture and sponsored by the Maas Family Excellence Fund.
Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of Christ in the Psalms, Christ in His Saints, and The Trial of Job (all from Conciliar Press). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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