Frequent commenter John Heavrin asked me:
(D)o you think it’s a good idea, or a bad idea, for Notre Dame to honor Obama?
I’m not one-hundred percent sure. This is a pretty tangled situation.
Universities invite a main speaker for commencement every year, it seems. It also seems an honorary degree is part of that particular landscape. Is the person invited to give a message of inspiration and motivation to the graduating class? If so, the message is on center stage and the accompanying “honor” is a formality, like the souvenir dinner card one takes home from a wedding. Sister Mary Ann Glendon is actually getting an award for something she’s done: a medal for a life’s witness to Christ. That award would be inappropriate to give to President Obama.
Our president is a major figure, a good speaker, and has much to say that is consonant with Catholic teaching, so in that sense the reason for his invitation ends there. His honorary degree will be useless professionally, and I suspect he would not choose to use it politically. I also suspect that President Obama has the courtesy not to use the platform given him at Notre Dame to support issues at odds with Catholic teaching. Many pro-choice persons worldwide have been invited to speak or receive honors at various locations, and it seems rare they in turn insult their hosts with an unwelcome message.
To boil it down, these would be the options for Notre Dame, or any other Catholic institution:
1. Invite a person who has had an abortion or performed one, or assisted someone in procuring one to speak in favor of the practice.
2. Invite said person, unrepentant, to speak on a different topic.
3. Invite a person who supports individual choice on abortion to speak in favor of choice
4. Invite said person to speak on a different topic.
5. Invite a pro-life speaker to speak against abortion.
6. Invite said person to speak on a different topic.
It would seem that those who oppose the president speaking at Notre Dame would find #6 acceptable and #5 a bonus. The university obviously finds #4 acceptable. Most Catholics would find #1 and #3 scandalous, and #2 to be the gray area, shading to black.
Given the rhetoric I’ve read from the opposition, I really, really doubt this is an occasion of scandal for Catholics. Bishop Doran and others, by their insults, reveal a rather low opinion of Notre Dame specifically, and of those who don’t agree with them generally. So I can’t imagine this invitation is a surprise to them. And if they already “knew” Notre Dame was a “secular” university, and everyone not them is an “apostate,” then where’s the scandal to be given?
I also think the most vociferous pro-lifers are nearly unable to withhold their venom, and on that count, I would lean against inviting a pro-choice politician if I were a university president. Sure, the ugliness is largely of their own making, but the politicization of the cultural environment both within the Church and outside of it means any hoped-for message will risk being drowned out. It’s like that Star Trek episode where Riker goes undercover for a first contact mission, things go badly, and the planetary leader realizes his culture is unprepared to accept membership in the Federation. As a pastoral minister, I cannot overlook the likely near-occasion of sin produced by the bile of those on the Catholic Right, and the scandal some few of them might give to the rest of the Church or to non-believers. I would have to take that into consideration.
I suspect the political coffers of anti-abortion groups will swell a bit this next month. Because of that, I can’t be completely sure this effort isn’t generated largely by Republicans as an embarass-the-president exercise first, and a convenient Catholic thing second. For that reason, while I think the opponents should protest what they see is an injustice here, and while I wouldn’t hesitate to offer personal support or ideas for students who approached me, I wouldn’t want to give assistance to the Republicans politically because of this.
So I’ll repeat my criticism of the critics, suggest the students look to Ezekiel for better protest ideas than Randall Terry or their liberal parents, and lament our ecclesial adolescence.