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.

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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.)

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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.

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