FULL TEXT: Judge Noonan’s Laetare remarks

A brief and to-the-point reflection that I think bears reading–a real signpost for the day, and the era:

Mr. President, Father President, Distinguished Faculty and Guests, Members of the Class of 2009, Families and Friends.

Graduates, you know today is a great day. It is a great day not only for you but for your parents and grandparents. They celebrate the completion of a passage – a passage you have made and they have made possible. The values they imparted to you have been tended here, intertwined with your increasingly independent lives as you face the urgent moral matters of the turbulent modern world.


For me, today brings me back to my own beginnings at Notre Dame. Recruited by Father Ted, I rejoiced in the ambience of Notre Dame – an ambience created by the love brought to it by faculty, staff, students, loyal alumni and the priests of Holy Cross. This love sustains a specially American institution situated as an integral part of an ancient, global institution, the Catholic Church. At the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council – Vatican II – we used to say of the next council, “On to Notre Dame I.” It’s still a valid hope.

I turn to issues before you as Americans prepared to participate in our urgent moral matters. Some things we have in common. Some things all of us know are wrong. Genocide is wrong.
Torture is wrong.
Slavery is wrong.


In these matters, our moral vision is clear. Our moral vision has had a voice to vindicate those unable to speak. Our moral vision is shared by the civilized world.

It was not so always. The clarity of our moral vision has come out of clashes. It has come by experience, by suffering, by strenuous debate. It has come from the insight and courage of gifted leaders. It has come from the light radiating from the Gospel.

The hesitations, the doubts, the qualifications, the outright opposition of others delayed the day of victory for each of the great moral causes where the truth ultimately prevailed. The champions of the cause were frustrated – frustrated most of all by those who should have been their friends.

Consider, for example, the relations of two men rightly called giants, Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. As late as August 14, 1862, the President advised emancipated slaves to emigrate – to emigrate, as the President vaguely put it, to “somewhere in Central America.” The President’s advice, Douglass wrote, was “ridiculous.” The President’s comments confirmed Douglass’s conviction that the President did not get two facts fundamental to a just solution – first, that black Americans were Americans; second, that Americans did not want to live somewhere else. Little over one month later, enlightenment began to dawn. The President issued the Emancipation Proclamation.


For half a century now, a great debate has gone on in this country about a matter touching the inviolability of human life in a mother’s womb, the rights of a woman with respect to her own body, the duties of doctors, the obligations of parents, and the role of government in a decision that is patently personal and significantly social.

The matter of this debate was too serious to be settled by pollsters and pundits; too delicate to be decided by physical force or by banners and slogans, pickets and placards; too basic for settlement to be based on a vote by judges. The matter was settled – so it seemed – thirty-six years ago. The settlement was still-born. Debate intensified. Debate is not now about to close. At its center are the claims of conflicting consciences.


By conscience, as you graduates of 2009 know, we apprehend what God asks of us and what the love of our neighbor requires. More than the voice of your mother, more than an emotional impulse, this mysterious, impalpable, imprescriptible, indestructible, and indispensable guide governs our moral life. Each one is different. You may suggest what my conscience should say, but you cannot tell me what my conscience must say.

That’s the rub when your moral vision is clear and the other fellow’s is cloudy. You become impatient, the more frustrated if the other fellow is a friend – an old friend or a potential friend. Why can’t he or she see it? To satisfy that frustration by shunning or denouncing your unseeing companion will accomplish little beyond expressing your own exasperation.


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.

One friend is not here today, whose absence I regret. By a lonely, courageous, and conscientious choice she declined the honor she deserved. I respect her decision. At the same time, I am here to confirm that all consciences are not the same; that we can recognize great goodness in our nation’s president without defending all of his multitudinous decisions; and that we can rejoice on this wholly happy occasion.

We can rejoice that we live in a country where dialogue, however difficult, is doable; where the resolution of our differences is done in peaceful ways; where our president is a man of conscience. We can rejoice with you, members of the Class of ’09, as your voices join the dialogue and declare your own notre_dame_commencement 8 consciences on the urgent matters that will be settled only when they are settled right.

“Great is truth. It will prevail.” This scriptural text is inscribed on the Laetare Medal. Believing the Bible, sustained by this message taken from it, we can work together. Yes! We can work together, serenely secure in that trust that the truth will out.

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Bryan Cones

posted May 18, 2009 at 10:19 am

Judge Noonan, far more than Bill Donohue of the Catholic League or the Cardinal Newman Society or even many of the bishops of the United States, is the person I wish was speaking more in the public square as a “Catholic voice.” It would be hard to find a speech that more beautifully captures the best of the Catholic moral tradition: thoughtful and self-assured as well as gracious, self-reflective, and open to others.

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Robert R.

posted May 18, 2009 at 10:22 am

“Genocide is wrong. Torture is wrong.”
How enlightened of a Catholic to recognize this. Too bad the Church took over a millenium to begin to the same.

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posted May 18, 2009 at 12:33 pm

Praise to Judge Noonan’s and President Obama’s speech. The narrow us vs them thinking is over. Let these men inspire all of us on both sides of any issue to come together with love and respect as Our Lord taught us well.

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posted May 18, 2009 at 8:37 pm

yes isn’t it nice to read a speech that says in essence we can disagree on murder, and still live in peace.
This was bull-crap…. the only reason he can say this is because the murder is done in the depths of the womb where only God and the murderer can see it.
If this was an orchestrated program including camps and gas chambers, of course he wouldn’t be so willing to sit next to President Obamination and make nice.

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Kevin Aldrich

posted May 18, 2009 at 8:53 pm

I don’t think Judge Noonan understands what a conscience is.
“Each one [conscience] is different,” only because each person has a conscience and each person is an individual.
However, Noonan is implying there are an infinite number of moralities, which is not true!
Conscience is reason sitting in judgment on actions, approving or condemning them. One must form his conscience based on the objective natural moral law of which only one exists!
Just because each person has a bit of a different grip on the moral law doesn’t mean it is perfectly okay for you to think abortion is right and okay for me to think it is wrong. There are plenty of men in the criminal world who think killing is a perfectly fine response to personal disrespect. Should we permit them to follow their consciences?

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posted May 19, 2009 at 8:54 am

A classic demonstration of moral relativism.

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posted May 19, 2009 at 9:33 am

If the President truly seeks to pursue common ground on this issue, my only question is “when?” He moved quickly to overturn restrictions he felt wrong. When will he move to try to bridge the divide? Or are these just more words in the conflict, albeit toned down.

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Your Name

posted May 19, 2009 at 3:47 pm

How did our moral vision become clear? How do we know that genocide is wrong? How do we know that torture is wrong? How do we know that slavery is wrong? We know in part because courageous men and women spoke up and said it was wrong for a man to own as property, another man, or to put to death millions of souls simply because of their ethnic heritage, or to exact information on pain of death simply because of national security. Judge Noonan’s speech does not go far enough. WE know that abortion is wrong. Courageous men and women will continue to guide the moral climate of the nation until destructive laws are repealed.

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Roland Newark

posted May 20, 2009 at 8:36 am

One can only feel very saddened that a judge of the court can hold such cheap ambiguous feelings – even as a catholic – concerning real human life.

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posted May 20, 2009 at 8:43 am

Judge Noonan is not implying that there are an infinite number of moralities.
His remarks speak to the infinite number of ways in which an infinite number of people can come to that morality.
If you see Life Is Sacred as the ultimate morality, which the Catholic Church does, then there is the sense that people will be at various places along their own personal journeys toward that morality.
For some it may seem like a short, straight path and for others they may get there with a more winding route. But get there they will if people and The Church continue to be a beacon supporting that morality.
This is, to me, the nature of free will that was given by God to man. Not that we have the free will to choose the ultimate morality, but we do have the free will to make mistakes -even horrendous ones – and be forgiven, and learn from them, and teach others and so on.
So it seems to me that THIS is the nature of the dialogue. Not whether or not abortion is good or evil. But can we meet someone where they are on the path and guide them to Life Is Sacred?
For people who are closer to the center — where all life is sacred from conception to natural death — it is incumbent upon us to go meet others where they are and bring them along.
To me this requires dialogue and love and tolerance … and yes, it may look like we’re abandoning the babies but we’re NOT!!! We know that abortion is evil and that Life Is Sacred. So we go out along paths where people are confused on this issue and may not see it so clearly and we bring them in.
Whether that person is the President of the United States or the teenager who delivers your newspaper…the idea is the same. Dialogue. Guidance. Love.
This is not sentimentalism. This is not moral relativism. It is Christianity.

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John Jakubczyk

posted May 20, 2009 at 11:01 am

And so it comes full circle that a man with so much intellectual firepower, a man who having sat on the bench for all these years clearly understands p0wer and its corrosive qualities, a man who having written a book in 1971 where he called the 2000 year prohibition against abortion, an “almost absolute value in history,” would fall into the moral confusion that so characterized the 1960s.
Judge Noonan had his Thomas More moment and instead of being the “kind’s good servant and God’s first, he declared that it was permissible to obey the king and ignore the truth of both God and reason. In failing to clearly state to the president and the graduates of Notre Dame the objective evil of abortion and the historic repudiation of its legitimacy, he raised the red herring of conscience, using it to deflect the reality that abortion always kills, always destroys, and is always wrong.
So the politics of personal relations trumped the role of truth. But I suppose I should not be too hard on the old man. His presence bailed out an incompetent university president and made everyone “feel” good. He got one more moment in the limelight after a long and distinguishd career. He almost got it right.
After all abortion is torture. Abortion is a type of genocide, especially when committed on minority populations, and abortion is a kind of slavery in the denial of the humanity of one group of persons by another. If only he had connected the dots, instead of laying down the pencil.

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