ND and the Prez: Thumbs Up or Down?

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.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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10 Responses to ND and the Prez: Thumbs Up or Down?

  1. Liam says:

    For me, it’s pretty easy: giving him the honorary degree was a bad idea. As a general matter, I would hope religious institutions of all stripes would shy away from toadying to the secular arm unless perhaps the honoree had specific an unimpeachable credentials on behalf of the beliefs of the religion in question. But Catholic institutions are accustomed to toadying to the powerful, so we should not be shocked when the habit is expanded to cover powerful people it did not originally cover….

    The speaking bit offends me less, unless it is an address to promote the objectionable stance as such (lots of qualifiers in there, I admit). And I think that fits with the practice of the Pope himself in Rome, btw.

  2. Liam says:

    I should add that if Fr Jenkins thought his institution’s defiance of the instruction from the USCCB would act as a dampener on the Thunder from The Catholic Right, he could not have possibly been more wrong. ND has instead fueled that thunder and in that way invited an increase in shrillness. (you know my meme: the chief obstacle to most people’s goals is…themselves.)

    Very. Very. Poor. Judgment.

  3. Gavin says:

    I can’t be completely sure this effort isn’t generated largely by Republicans as an embarass-the-president exercise first

    I can be sure that it is an attempt to embarrass the president. He embarrassed them in the election, and they want payback. Let’s get over it, eh?

    Then again, the more thought I give this, the more I think the honorary degree is a bad idea. Well, inviting him to speak is a bad idea due to the controversy, but giving the “degree” is probably the wrong thing to do, due to what he did with his knowledge of law in his legislative career. Where inviting him to give the speech can serve as an invitation of sorts to do better with his executive career.

  4. Jimmy Mac says:

    From the America magazine blogsite:

    Stop Disrespecting Our President!

    Posted at: 2009-04-01 09:49:43.0
    Author: Michael Sean Winters

    Cardinal Francis George has now entered the fray regarding Notre Dame’s invitation to President Barack Obama to deliver the commencement address this year. A total of nine bishops have issued statements on the matter, which have sadly come precariously close to disrespecting the President and more than amply shown how out of touch the bishops are with the culture in which they live.

    Cardinal George said, according to the Catholic News Service headline that “‘Notre Dame didn’t understand what it meant to be Catholic’ When They Invited Obama.” Note the quotation marks. The Cardinal was making the point that when you are Catholic, what you do affects everyone else in the Church, and that the outcry over the invitation should have been anticipated by Notre Dame, that the sensus fidelium should have told them that inviting Obama would cause a scandal and that Catholics have an obligation not to cause scandal one to another.

    Fair enough, but the loudness of a protest has nothing to do with its veracity or, in this instance, its coherence with the sensus fidelium. Most Catholics are, I suspect, proud that their President is coming to a Catholic university, that the visit is an honor.

    Cardinal George might also have noted that the controversy may be boiling in the Catholic world, but it barely merits a mention in the mainstream culture. Smart, informed people I know look quizzically and say, “Oh, what’s that?” when I tell them I have been writing a lot about the Notre Dame controversy. Indeed, historians may sadly look back on this episode as the beginning of a re-ghettoization of the American Catholic Church.

    Let’s be clear. That is what the critics want. They do not want to give a platform to anyone who disagrees with them. They say that abortion is the only issue that warrants such a hardened stance because it is an intrinsic evil, but the last time I checked, using artificial birth control is also considered an intrinsic evil. They do not want students at a university – of all places – exposed to ideas that are different from theirs. They are Catholic fundamentalists with a brittle and cramped notion of Catholic identity. Sadly, the bishops appear to be listening to them.

    Let us also be clear that the pro-life movement has been unable to change the culture in the past thirty years on this issue. They have not only failed to change the laws, they have failed to find ways to lower the abortion rate. And, like their pro-choice counterparts, they are suspicious of efforts to reduce the abortion rate not because they will fail but because they fear they will work and deny both extremes their funding and their raison d’etre.

    Cardinal George said that he intended no disrespect for the President. Cardinal DiNardo and Bishop D’Arcy also said they had great respect for the President. Yet, all three persist in calling him “pro-abortion.” President Obama does not refer to himself that way and would argue the point that there is a distinction between being pro-abortion and being pro-choice. That may be a distinction without a difference, but it requires an argument, not an assertion. More disturbing is the failure on the part of these moral and religious leaders to recognize what respect entails. If anything, it means referring to someone as they refer to themselves. I do not think a bishop would call Mr. Obama a “negro” and if they did it would be considered rude, even though that is precisely how Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle would have referred to Obama at his birth in the early 1960s. Why? Because black Americans do not refer to themselves that way anymore. The bishops need to stop referring to Obama as “pro-abortion.” It is disrespectful.

    I confess, however, that I fear the American hierarchy is unaware how irrelevant they are becoming to the culture they wish to change. An ABC poll released yesterday showed Obama’s approval rating at 66 percent. The Church can never compromise an essential tenet of its faith, of course, no matter what the polls say. But, the idea that Notre Dame’s decision to invite the President of the United States is a “moral outrage” only shows that our bishops are once again out-of-touch with their flock and ineffectual at persuading their culture. It is very sad.

  5. Kevin in Texas says:

    Rich one, coming from a group that never failed to spew teh most vile, hateful rhetoric about President Bush, and later about Governor Palin during the campaign.

    Also iteresting to me that Winters is in a lather about conservative meanies calling President Obama names, but he doesn’t seem to confess any outrage at all when it comes to Obama’s anti-life initiatives and anti-Catholic moves like his proposal to rescind freedom of conscience clauses protecting Catholic health care workers from being forced by Uncle Sam to either commit murder or leave the health care field altogether.

    The lack of respect goes both ways.

  6. Jimmy Mac says:

    And the “group that never failed to spew teh most vile, hateful rhetoric about President Bush” was whom exactly? America magazine? MS Winters?

    Exactitude in your excoriations, puhleeze.

  7. Kevin in Texas says:

    Good news in terms of pro-life student effort on ND campus:

    A group of pro-life ND students have begun a movement of “40 Days of Rosary to change Obama’s heart on life issues in the U.S.”–they ask pro-life Catholics nationwide to join in saying a Rosary or part of a rosary every day for 40 days (now until the May 17th commencement ceremony) that Our Lady may intercede for a conversion of President Obama’s heart on issues important to pro-life Americans.

    Something we can all support and do ourselves, providing good Christian witness and perhaps opening the President’s heart to our witness!

  8. Todd says:

    Forty days has a lot of heft, but the traditional time period for intercession is nine days.

    Forty-day periods are more associated with sacred practices such as fasting or almsgiving along with, of course, prayer.

    Practicing a fast during the Easter season is a bit in congruous, I’ll grant. But it would seem that believers should have something in their quiver that moves beyond a practice many Catholics already embrace.

  9. John Donaghy says:

    I believe that Mary Ann Glendon, the former ambassador from the US to the Vatican, very pro-life, is going to receive Notre Dame’s Laetare Award at the commencement. A fitting “anti-dote”. By the way her book, Abortion and Divorce in Western Law: American Failures, European Challenges, provides a very interesting framework for understanding the context of US abortion law.

  10. Tony says:

    2. Invite said person, unrepentant, to speak on a different topic.


    Do you consider paying for an abortion as assistance in procuring one?

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