This May, Barack Obama will deliver his first commencement address as president. He will not journey to West Point, as Bill Clinton did for his first such oration, to prove his patriotic gratitude for the men in uniform. Nor will he return, a devoted and loyal son, to one of his almae matres, either in the Ivy League or Occidental College. He will not even patronize with his presence an institution run by the states that his federal budget will bloat with generous stimulus disbursements.
No, the president has chosen America’s iconic Catholic university, Notre Dame, for his inaugural commencement rostrum. Such a move, indeed, may seem fitting for the president’s political calculus. Both Indiana and Catholics swung from George W. Bush’s column in 2004 to support him last November, and this speech will no doubt continue the president’s much-ballyhooed outreach to “faith-based” voters. From the perspective of the White House, the setting in South Bend is impeccable.
Yet Notre Dame has come under fire—and for good reason.
Catholics especially, including many prominent bishops, have questioned the judgment of the university administration to invite the president, whose policy positions and many recent enactments directly oppose the Church’s essential teachings. The president had signed executive orders releasing a ban on funding abortions abroad and reversing the Bush administration’s refusal to subsidize embryonic stem-cell research. These two questions of abortion and stem-cell research—on which the Church and the White House are in direct opposition—are the political issues that the American episcopacy had singled out, both before the election and after, as the most crucial for Catholic voters to consider. The Church teaches, as American bishops recently have affirmed and reaffirmed, that life begins at conception and that abortion and the harvesting of embryos is morally intolerable—positions that for Catholics of good faith are not susceptible to compromise.
For the country’s most prominent Catholic university to invite the president, especially in the wake of those recent pronouncements, proves how little esteemed the American bishops and Church teaching are in the ivied confines of South Bend. The incoming Archbishop of New York has criticized the invitation, the local prelate conspicuously has refused to attend the ceremony, and most Catholic intellectuals—at least those not in open doctrinal rebellion—have written unfavorably of the fiasco. Unsurprisingly, conservatives still miffed about November’s results, which include perhaps a majority of the practicing and churchgoing faithful, have been especially harsh on Notre Dame.
The university administration has acted quickly in its own defense. The president, Fr. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., has described Obama’s “visit as a basis for further positive engagement,” and not as “support [for] all of his positions.” And Douglas W. Kmiec, Obama’s most ostentatious Catholic booster during the election, panegyrized the President as a real “fightin’ Irish,” like Notre Dame, “when it comes to working for social justice.” American Catholic laymen on the right and left will continue to disagree, no doubt, on which political issues—abortion or immigration reform, stem-cell research or education—are most salient.
Yet this ought not to be a political issue, as many of the combatants in the media polemics have made it out to be. For Catholics, regardless of voting patterns, the stakes should be clear: Inviting Obama calls into question Notre Dame’s fidelity and submission to the teachings of the Church, as required of all the faithful, and especially Catholic schools.
But from a secular perspective, as well, Notre Dame has failed ignominiously. The proper role of the university, in transmitting and elaborating on the collected wisdom of the ages, is to pursue and safeguard truth. Secular universities, enraptured by modish postmodernism and value-free social science, understandably have abandoned that creed. But for an institution sustained by the Catholic faith, which still, however unfashionably, purports to serve and honor the truth, such a mission ought not be discarded thoughtlessly.
The Catholic Church teaches that abortion and stem-cell research is wrong and forbids its faithful from supporting such practices, whether directly in person or indirectly through the ballot box. In inviting a president whose recent agenda prominently has contradicted those tenets, Notre Dame intimates that the Catholic truth it purportedly upholds is malleable and appropriately sacrificed for the fleeting prestige that a presidential commencement address would confer.
Notre Dame provided the site several years ago for New York Governor Mario Cuomo to offer his infamous rationalization that, as a Catholic, he was personally opposed to abortion, but, as a public figure, he should not necessarily refuse to support it. Such a defense, mounted by every progressive Catholic politician since, clearly indicates that “truth” imposes no obligation if public opinion and the machinations of well-funded lobbyists are not fortuitously aligned. That shameful episode, a source of scandal to faithful Catholics even today, threatens to repeat itself in May.
Christopher B. Lacaria ’09, a Crimson editorial writer, is a history concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.
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