Friday, May 01, 2009

Public symbols: Woodward & Jenkins on Notre Dame

As a follow-up on our recent post, "Kenneth Woodward on Notre Dame: a critique" (Musings, April 30, 2009), a friend and correspondent from the West Coast writes:
From Ken Woodward's defense of ND's Obama invite (The Washington Post, March 30, 2009): "He will receive an honorary degree because it is the custom, not as a blessing on any of his decisions."

Dear. God. In. Heaven.

A custom with meaning, or a custom without meaning?

If without meaning, then by all means let Fr Jenkins open the ceremony with, "What we are about to do is simply a custom without meaning. Let us proceed."

If with meaning, then what does it mean?

Re: said meaning, Fr Jenkins tells us that ND's proposed honors (incl. the honorary doctorate) do not signify (that is, mean) an endorsement of any evil policy of Obama's. Well, I'm sure they don't... in Fr. Jenkins' mind. Otherwise, Fr. Jenkins would himself be in dissent from the Church's moral teaching.

Both these gentlemen are displaying an obtuseness regarding the nature of a public symbol, that I am sure neither would display in other contexts. Fr Jenkins says, in effect, "This honorary doctorate means what I wish it to mean, neither more nor less" (cf. Humpty Dumpty). Indeed, in Fr. Jenkins' little private world of symbols, this honorary degree may mean (or not mean) whatever he wills. But it is not up to him to determine the meaning of a public symbol, said meaning being... well, public. And the public is letting him know what it means.

Therefore, it would be wrong (though tempting to some pessimistic souls) to say that public symbols are generally empty of meaning in our culture. On the contrary. Our elites employ such symbols with venal cynicism, precisely in order to trade on the public meaning they still retain. People like Woodward and Fr Jenkins are, we hope, not cynics. But they are myopic, and both the cynicism and the myopia are symptoms of our time.
[Hat tip to K.K.]