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Noonan: Moral clarity comes from ‘strenuous debate’

Aaron Steiner | Sunday, May 17, 2009

   For the first time since 1883, the University did not award the Laetare Medal, the highest honor bestowed American Catholic, on Sunday, normally given on Commencement day.

The lack of award did not go without notice – Judge John T. Noonan, the 1984 recipient of the Medal, gave an address in lieu of that of its recipient. The 2009 winner, Mary Ann Glendon, declined the award on the basis of President Obama’s presence at Commencement.

Noonan used the address to speak about “a great debate” in America about “the inviolability of human life in a mother’s womb,” offering his thoughts on the ways Americans should go about such a debate, which he called “patently personal and significantly social.”

Noonan said “claims of conflicting consciences” are the center of the debate, and that opposing viewpoints cannot be shunned or denounced.

“[Will you] help your cause by hurting your friends? No. What does work is prayer, patience, empathy, and the love that encircles the other person, a fellow creature attempting to do what he or she sees as right,” Noonan said.

Noonan highlighted the moral issues on which he claimed all people can agree – genocide, slavery and torture among them – saying people share a “clear moral vision” that comes from “experience, suffering and by strenuous debate.”

The “outright opposition” of others, Noonan said, “delayed the day of victory for each of the great moral causes where truth ultimately prevailed.”

With those remarks behind him, he moved to acknowledge Glendon’s absence and her “lonely, courageous and conscientious choice” to decline the Medal.

“I respect her decision,” he said. “At the same time, I am here to confirm that all consciences are not the same, and we can recognize great goodness in our nation’s president without defending all of his multitudinous decisions; and that we can rejoice together on this wholly happy occasion.

“We can rejoice that we live in a country where dialogue, however difficult, is doable; where resolution of our differences is done in peaceful ways; where our president is a man of conscience,” Noonan said to applause from throughout the arena.

Speaking specifically to the abortion debate, Noonan said that while the matter may have seemed to have been settled 37 years ago with the landmark Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, the debate rages forward.

“Debate is not now about to close,” he added.

Noonan also praised the graduates in his address and told them they must now participate in the “urgent moral matters” of a “turbulent modern world.”