Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
July 3, 2006
Academic elite shun challenger
The protests against ethicist Margaret Somerville's honorary degree from Ryerson University in Toronto say so much about the current drift of the Western world. "Drift" in two senses: it is the direction in which society is headed, but it also refers to our lack of moral anchors.
Somerville, a renowned ethicist from McGill University, whose views on the spectrum of life and family issues are moderate, was the object of strong protests at Ryerson when she received an honorary degree last month.
Why? Because she opposes same-sex marriage primarily for the effect that institutionalizing such relationships would have on the children involved.
Somerville, however, does say that homosexuals should be allowed to enter into civil unions. (It is hard for us to see what difference it would make to children to be raised in a civil union rather than in a homosexual "marriage.")
Nevertheless, the news that she was to receive an honorary degree from Ryerson put the university community in an uproar. Public protests and a petition asking the university to reverse its decision were launched.
Eventually, the committee that had decided to award her the degree issued a statement saying, "many of us disagree strongly" with her views on same-sex marriage and would have given "serious pause" to honouring her had it known of those views. However, the committee decided to pat itself on the back for respecting academic freedom, hold its nose and award the honour. Talk about taking away with the left hand what the right hand has already given!
Remember, Somerville said she is opposed to same-sex marriage - a view that at the time she expressed it was held by the majority of the Canadian population. She has not called for live cats to be thrown into boiling oil. She has taken a stand on an issue that ought to be the subject of open debate in a free society.
The secularization of society was supposed to mean that intellectuals would be freed from the shackles imposed by religious modes of thought.
Instead, there is a new form of intellectual slavery. Dare to defend the existence of universal moral norms and transcendence as an essential aspect of the human person and you become persona non grata.
The freedom of inquiry in the secular academic world exists within a tight circle. Ryerson University has begrudgingly given Margaret Somerville one of its highest honours. But would it give her a job teaching at the university if she became available to it? Would someone far less well known than Somerville be hired to a teaching position if she or he held her views? What about someone who is opposed to legal abortion?
In the past, Ryerson has awarded honorary degrees to controversial union boss Buzz Hargrove, Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels and James Cameron, director of the movie Terminator. None of those awards caused a stir. It is only those who shine a light into the dark corners of society who are likely to be shunned.
To their credit, while some Ryerson profs turned their backs when Somerville received her degree, many others stood and applauded. The university, home to so many who are close-minded, is at least not a monolith.
One reason Pope John Paul II wrote his encyclical The Splendour of Truth in 1993 was to challenge "currents of thought which end by detaching human freedom from its essential and constitutive relationship to truth."
Thirteen years later those currents of thought are ever more in the ascendancy in our drifting Western world.
And, oddly enough, the thinking that sails against the prevailing currents is most likely to be found in those who hold to the hoary old notion of universal moral truth.
- Glen Argan
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