Image by Darren Larson
There's an article on the front page of yesterday's Boston Sunday Globe titled, Churches vie to be Obamas' spiritual home. Here's the lede:
Aides to President Obama are quietly checking out local churches to find his new spiritual home, a delicate, complex task that must balance Obama's public profile, security needs, and personal beliefs against a discreet but intense competition among ministers to bring the first family to their pews.I'm sure there are many who can't help but wonder if my alma mater, the University of Notre Dame, is vying to provide a spiritual platform for the new chief executive. I think of that as I try to understand what motives led the UND administration to invite Barack Obama to be its May 2009 commencement speaker and to award him, honoris causa, a Doctor of Laws degree.
I can easily imagine that few schools would pass up a chance to have the US president on the platform for graduation. It's good publicity, good for alumni relations and good for fund raising. Having the president speak at graduation says something about who you are. And that's my question: what does the Obama invitation say about the University of Notre Dame?
Well, it certainly says that Notre Dame can reel in the big ones. It says the ND commencement procession is a desirable one. It says that Notre Dame is true to its understanding of the openness the academy should have to all points of views. It says that Notre Dame chooses to honor Obama and his politics. And it says that all this is important enough for Notre Dame to to risk some heavy criticism, and alumni dollars, on account of its choice.
And of course, Obama's accepting the invitation tells us that Notre Dame is a feather in his cap.
I easily understand that much of what Obama stands for aligns with the social justice priorities of Catholicism and Notre Dame. But I also understand that one thing he stands for --virtually unlimited reproductive rites-- is at serious and deadly odds with a critically important moral law the Church espouses. Although abortion is not the only nor necessarily always the first issue Catholics should be concerned about, neither should it be the first to be set aside for political purposes nor the last to be considered in ordering priorities.
I don't favor litmus testing politicians as part of vetting them for academic honors. Still, when a potential invitee stands this far apart from the Church on an issue at the heart of its teaching, one can't help but question the wisdom of such a choice made by a school whose administration building sits next to its own on-campus basilica over whose front doors flies the papal flag.
Although I'm sure others will draw harsher conclusions, I don't believe that the Notre Dame administration is made up of pro-choice individuals. Still, this commencement decision leads me to wonder, again, why and how some Catholics so easily compartmentalize the question of abortion in favor of other social concerns and political considerations.
The selection of former Ambassador Mary Ann Glendon to receive the esteemed Laetare Medal at the same commencement is notable and sends a signal of Notre Dame's respect for the pro-life position. From my own point of view, Glendon's presence will not so much "balance" the platform as it will bring to sharp focus the differences between the commencement speaker and the medal recipient. Unfortunately, Glendon will not have a speaking role in this ceremony.
Correction: an email from a friend in administration at ND tells me:Has Notre Dame forgotten the consistent life ethic championed by Chicago's late archbishop, Cardinal Joseph Bernadin, the principal speaker and an honorary degree recipient at the '83 ND commencement? His image of a "seamless garment" of social justice was a simple and yet demanding one. The decision at hand tears the fabric of that Church teaching and Notre Dame's reputation as the premier American Catholic university. Some will claim that honoring Obama protects my alma mater's academic integrity. I submit that a deeper integrity is left vulnerable on account of it.
The Laetare Medalist indeed does have a speaking role—he/she has always been asked to give reflections that usually are of gratitude but other times are on a topic: David Brubeck played Travelin Blues for the graduates, Martin Sheen gave a rousing speech...
For full disclosure, I confess that these thoughts lack a certain objectivity. Notre Dame was and is a spiritual home for me. It's the place where I rediscovered my vocation to ministry at a time when I was on the verge of giving it up. It's a school where I served as a mentor and minister to students through my work in campus ministry and where I pursued graduate studies myself. I know it as a university born of and sustained by a Catholic faith still celebrated in 28 residence halls, each of which has its own chapel and Mass schedule. Notre Dame is, indeed, an alma mater to me and I cherish her part in my life.
I take much joy in being a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and I always will. I don't believe that Notre Dame has abandoned its Catholic heritage: no one familiar with the university would hastily jump to such a conclusion. Still, a cloud shadows the Golden Dome in South Bend and in that I take no school pride.