Obama at ND — Or, Everyone Is Wrong

Joining the fray late, but better (I hope) than never, and probably nowhere near the end of this tortuous, torturous, obscene debate, I feel, if only to keep promises that I have made, that I need to say something about the matter of President Obama’s presenting the commencement address at my alma mater and receiving an honorary degree.

First, Fr. John I. Jenkins, c.s.c, president of Our Lady’s University and, by most measures, I think, a let-down to those many of us who thought that he’d represent a shift back toward “conservatism” — by which we, or at least I (I doubt, actually, that this is true of some of the partisans of the Catholic Right), meant orthodoxy — deserves a good scolding. This I say not necessarily (at least yet) because he invited a president — invited anyone — whose beliefs, comments, and policies on such fundamental issues of life stand in such stark contrast to the Teaching of the Holy Mother Church, but because he lacked the foresight and compassion to realize that such a controversial choice, no matter how it may further Notre Dame’s prestige (at a cost, no doubt), would so inundate the University and the student body — especially the seniors — precisely when they ought to be granted at least so brief a reprieve from the weight of the world to be able to enjoy their last week and ceremonies as undergraduates. Maybe, notwithstanding the obvious reasons to challenge the president’s presence at and participation at commencement, this is a great choice, insofar as, doubtless, Obama will offer some wise words worthy of consideration and, maybe, his experience at Notre Dame will have some positive impact on him as a human being, however seemingly immeasurable it may be. Nonetheless, the benefits, I submit, are simply not worth needlessly furthering the divide between more conservative and more liberal students and alumni/ae or between the University and the Church’s hierarchy; most definite, it is not worth burdening the senior class (and all students) with such divisive tension. Shame on you, Fr. Jenkins.

For accepting the invitation, then, President Obama and his people deserve to be excoriated, too. Surely, a man who has spent time in academia, who is purportedly so very attuned to the concerns of this generation, and who, through his work as a community organizer — and an alleged common-ground-seeking candidate —, understands the need for unity, rather than division (He is, after all, the new Lincoln! United we stand, y’all.) — should have recognized how much unwarranted consternation his involving himself at an ostensibly Catholic University’s commencement would cause and, in as elegant a manner as possible, have declined.


Now, what about the decision to invite someone whose positions on abortion and stem-cell research place him opposite the Roman Catholic Church to address the audience at commencement in violation of a prohibition on granting a platform for pro-choice individuals to speak, even if on matters wholly unrelated to abortion? Well, I think it was a poor choice on the part of Fr. Jenkins, et alios. We pride ourselves on being a Catholic University par excellence, even nonpareil, and Fr. Jenkins has found himself having explicitly to assure the world that welcoming the president to speak, and awarding him an honorary degree, does not mean that Notre Dame endorses or approves of his views on abortion, et c.. Something dreadful, perhaps portentous, inheres in this. On the other hand, President Obama, as Fr. Jenkins has noted, has displayed a concern for the poor, for the maltreated (except for those not yet born), that echoes the Church’s social teaching (even if he’s more reliant on heavy government intervention than many who have embraced Catholic social teaching have historically been). Moreover, it would be disingenuous to suggest that the president of the United States of America, a man with an impressive academic background and more than enough interesting “real-world” experience, has nothing worthwhile to offer a batch of the world’s future leaders.

That being said, I’m still concerned that the University made a decision in direct rejection of the Church’s prohibition, whether or not that interdiction is appropriate or short-sighted. Universities, Catholic or otherwise, need to be places — or, at least, this has become so, perhaps without the necessary boundaries — for sensible, dispassionate discourse, open to opposing points of view. However, an institution purportedly loyal to the Holy Mother Church needs to be just that, too. It raises a fundamental question that, I contend, no one seems to be willing to admit underlies this entire debacle, to wit, whether “Catholic University” has not become a contradictory term, an impossibility in the modern world. (More on this later. I promise.)


Now, having said all of that, I have two things to say. First, the Catholic Right needs to shut the eff up. I sympathize, as I think I’ve made clear, with their cause, at least in part. I’m all for tilting at windmills (as the banner on this humble Weblog suggests), certainly when something as big as this is at stake. But knowing that nothing is going to change, can’t they (including students who, admirably as much as annoyingly, are leading the charge) admit defeat and let the students have their graduation in peace? Let Bishop D’Arcy, Cardinal George, et alios, have their say as members of the hierarchy; let Fr. Jenkins and other University leaders and the hierarchy enter — at least I’d like to see this happen — into constructive, productive debate, muchly needed, over questions about balance and the Catholic identity of Notre Dame — and, really, Catholic Universities, period — away from the limelight and under the light of the Holy Spirit.

I absolutely cannot say all of this and then let the Catholic Left off of the hook. First, though many, I am sure, are sincere in their defense of bringing President Obama to campus in light of the issues where he does agree with the Church, I’ve grown rather weary of the loosely defined notion of “intellectual freedom” as a defense of this. Most important (at least to me), it’s ineffably painful to watch these leftists who objected to George W. Bush the warrior so vehemently defend Barack Obama the abortion-rights-supporting warrior. Blindness and ignorance, my “progressive” friends, is no monopoly held by the mainstream Right.


17 Responses

  1. “I absolutely cannot say all of this and not let the Catholic Left off of the hook.”

    I think that there are more negations there than you may have intended. I assume you meant something like “I absolutely cannot say all of this and then let the Catholic Left off of the hook.”

    I recently came across an interesting statistic (I think it was in the Observer, but I can’t recall) to the effect that while the undergraduate population as a whole was mostly in favor with a substantial number opposed to the choice of President Obama as commencement speaker, except for the seniors who were overwhelmingly in favor of Obama coming.

    Assuming that’s accurate and assuming that the moral/political/theological views of the undergraduates don’t vary dramatically from year to year that suggests that you’re much more likely to be in favor if you will be able to say “Obama was my commencement speaker.”

    I have nothing much to add to the debate generally though, except that I think many of those opposed to Obama’s coming have made a mistake in making this about his views rather than the policies he has enacted or announced (and in not emphasizing the honorary degree part of the event nearly enough). It seems to me that having a speaker who is known to be pro-choice at an event like this shouldn’t be inherently problematic, but giving an honorary JD to a speaker who is responsible for lifting the ban on federally funded embryonic stem-cell research and who is on record as intending to sign FOCA into law at the first available opportunity is much more troubling.

  2. Thanks for the negation correction, Peter.

    Interesting statistic, too. I’m no fan of the prez, but I can’t blame people for wanting to be able to say, “The [cool] president spoke at my commencement.”

  3. The problem, as I see it, is that this has been made a political tool; another event used not to really truly discuss the issue of life but to muddy up the debate even further. So, generally I agree with you. However, I think that the exclusion of pro-choice speakers is simply short-sighted and foolish, especially when those speakers are national leaders whose speech has nothing to do with the issue of abortion. That being said, this was a rash move on the part of the school. I hope the whole mess doesn’t too badly disrupt what ought to be a joyous occasion.

  4. Mr. Kain, I agree pretty fully. Like I implied, I’m not sure if the bishops’ policy is a wise one or not; I certainly appreciate the ostensible goals of denying pro-choice politicians/public figures (especially, but not only, Catholics) a microphone, and one might make the case the University went out of its way to grant a platform to someone in this case, but such a blanket prohibition ignores the common ground elsewhere that Catholics have with pro-choice figures, to the detriment, often, of us all. As you aptly put it, this incident is just muddying up the debate, which is disappointing.

  5. Obama at Notre Dame is another example of how certain groups are creating this push for interfaith which is trying to build an acceptance for modern social mores.

    But What social forces are funding Global Interfaith, Abrahamaic Unity? Is Reform Judaism trying to create a new sect in Islam, “Reform Islam”?

    Reform Judaism Islam Yehezkel Landau, Hartford Seminary Global Interfaith:

  6. Look, I think abortion is wrong. I am personally pro-life, but I think there is a lot of ground to cover culturally before we can say we’ve done enough to prevent abortions ever being an option in the first place – and the only way we can hope to do that is through an open dialogue with pro-choice advocates. Often their goal is not so pernicious; they too want to see an end to abortions. Many are rightly worried that prohibition now would only lead to a deadly black market. So it’s vitally important that all sides work together to bring about change, and save lives.

  7. “[T]here is a lot of ground to cover culturally before we can say we’ve done enough to prevent abortions ever being an option in the first place – and the only way we can hope to do that is through an open dialogue with pro-choice advocates. ”

    No argument here. I’m, I think, more willing to support outlawing, at the risk of the downside of a black market than you are, but I’m one hundred percent in agreement that dialogue is necessary because cultural change is necessary.

  8. Well it is a tricky question. I’m just of the mind that black markets are invariably bad, and likely inevitable to some degree. However I think we can do real good in changing the culture before an outright ban comes into place; for one, I think there is wisdom in taking steps – i.e. limiting abortions first to first-term, for instance, while at the same time increasing the effort to provide real social services for women. At the same time, I think the more divisive elements of the pro-life movement have turned people off. That needs to change. The pro-life movement needs to be seen as compassionate again, and that compassion needs to extend to the mothers especially. It’s amazing what compassion can do to change hearts and minds. Honestly, and I may come across as a bit of an ass here, but I think the pro-life cause was in better hands when it was almost the sole purview of the Catholic Church. When the more rabid elements of protestantism got hold of it that’s when things began to get ugly.

  9. ” i.e. limiting abortions first to first-term, for instance, while at the same time increasing the effort to provide real social services for women. ”

    I certainly agree with the second part of this statement, and think it the most abject failing of the “pro-life” movement that so many just assume that these women who care to term — and their babies, whose right to life we so vociferously defend — will be fine without any help after the baby is born.

    From a purely practical, political point, you’re quite right on the first suggestion, too. However, the problem that ultimately troubles me is the same one that makes defending exceptions for rape and incest so difficult for me. No, it’s not palatable to think of telling a victim of rape that she now has to mother a child that was quite literally forced into her. But it compels us to ask why we oppose abortion and want to end it. If it’s just an unpleasant thing, one with consequences wherewith a woman seriously may have to deal in regret, then limiting when abortion may be procured and working to end it, without necessarily banning it in toto is a great plan. But if we oppose it as the violation of a sacrosanct right to life, then we have a problem. A rape-produced baby has just the same right to life as one conceived intentionally and lovingly has; the baby who’s mother ends up procuring a black-market abortion has just the same right to live as has the child who would be aborted were her mother not disinclined to seek the back-alley option.

    I realize, given the lack of support for the mother and child, post-birth, and the fundamental cultural issue, that any sort of step-by-step approach is worthwhile. I just wonder what happens to the conviction that all life matters equally if that’s not the practical result of our doings.

    “Honestly, and I may come across as a bit of an ass here, but I think the pro-life cause was in better hands when it was almost the sole purview of the Catholic Church. When the more rabid elements of protestantism got hold of it that’s when things began to get ugly.”

    I’m not at all inclined to disagree… But I already know that I’m an ass.

  10. Lets see the Catholics were filthy with pedaphiles for wtenty plus years which was covered up by the pope. The protestant evangelicals were organized and run by a very weird gay-bi drug user who liked teen men. And these r the most pious men of those sects.

    didnt Jesus say judge them by their ffruits and warn us about Christians in Mat 7:23.

    Anything but “Christian” for true followers of Jesus.

    the most depraved, carnal, materialistic, consumer idiotic, satanic culture since the roman empire, (its mother): Christendom.

  11. Brilliant contribution, Kazee. Absolutely top-notch.

  12. From the NYT, 4/06/09

    “Some 97 percent of seniors who have sent letters to the school newspaper, The Observer, support Mr. Obama as the commencement speaker, said the editor, Jenn Metz. Letters from alumni, however, have overwhelmingly opposed his appearance.”

    (Your comment to Kazee – lazy and snotty.)

  13. Thanks, KidA, for your insightful comment, the exact contribution of which I’ve yet to determine.

    I offered my “lazy and snotty” comment to Kazee because nothing more was appropriate. His post was not only typed, with no proofreading, by someone whose lack of diligence in such mundane matters suggests similar sloth in the cogitation required to develop a comment to offer in reply to my initial post.

    Moreover, it relies on very weak generalizations, offers a passage from Scripture without context or exegesis, and is barely relevant to the points I made in the original post.

    I may have been snotty in my reply; it was justified. It is Kazee — who actually may be a troll/bot, anyhow — who engaged in intellectual torpidity.

  14. “I offered by ‘lazy and snotty’ comment ….”

    Was that “by” to be “my”? PLEASEPLEASEPPLEASE prooFread you own comments.

  15. Thank you, KidA, for pointing out my mistake. I have corrected it.

    Your focusing on my one typo, however, ignored that the composition of Kazee’s post showed not just the signs of someone’s making a typographical error, but of someone who put little thought into the process.

    And thank you, of course, for replying to the most inane of details, rather than to anything material to the broader discussion.

  16. I see you saw fit to drop my reply. See the differance?

  17. Hello

    I’ve just uploaded two rare interviews with the Catholic activist Dorothy Day. One was made for the Christophers [1971]–i.e., Christopher Closeup– and the other for WCVB-TV Boston [1974].

    Day had begun her service to the poor in New York City during the Depression with Peter Maurin, and it continued until her death in 1980. Their dedication to administering to the homeless, elderly, and disenfranchised continues with Catholic Worker homes in many parts of the world.

    Please post or announce the availability of these videos for those who may be interested in hearing this remarkable lay minister.

    They may be located here:


    Thank you

    Dean Taylor

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