Notre Dame, our mother... Barack Obama, our president...

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:
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...
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.

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.



  1. Concord Pastor, I appreciate your wise and reasoned comments on this matter. I am struck by your capacity for understanding along with your framing this as you have - with such a clear focus on the urgency of respect for life.

    Sadly much of the commentary on this matter has been that of vilification and derision, which is very hard for me to deal with.

    I do pray that President Obama opens his heart and his mind to another way of seeing things. That is a journey I had to make myself, one that took awhile, but has been made by the grace of God.

    So who knows how God will use this for good.

    And I am also reminded that Jesus invited all sorts of unsavory types to dine with him. How else could they be transformed? And with that, the world transformed with them.

    Speaking of which, I love the way your own story turns on this time at Notre Dame and just how and why it is so special for you.

    Thank you and Peace,

  2. I do not think Notre Dame is trying to reel Barack Obama in. I also do wonder who among us has a consistent life ethic.Did Ronald Reagan? Am I correct that when he was governor of California he signed a very liberal abortion law? Later he seems to have changed his viewws for political expediency.Also, how did he feel about war? George Bush may or may not be anti-abortion, sometimes one cannot be quite sure, but he sent us precipitously into war. I believe that Barack Obama does not hold the same religious views that I do, but I feel he may see the stem cell issue as pro-saving-life (yes, I know about wrong means ot a good end) - or, in any case, would not try to make me feel as he does, whatever that may be. Of course I wish there would never be a decision for abortion, but I know that, not just the President, but other people of good will do not see abortion as I do. I really don't see Barack Obama as a shadow on the Golden Dome (the Alma Mater of an uncle and three of my cousins).

  3. Bravo, well said! As an ND grad, who later taught there, I applaud your love of the university -- a love that requires one to be honest. Obama speaking at ND is one thing, Obama receiving honors from ND is another.

    Fr. Jenkins so wants to prove that he and ND are relevant in the modern world that he will allow the Monologues and a pro-abortion president to use ND for their own purposes. It is sad that he feels this need, for in reality, the modern world desperately needs what Notre Dame really stands for -- an Ultimate Truth, one revealed by Jesus thanks to the Fiat of His Mother, Our Lady.

  4. A friend in administration at ND emailed to tell me:

    "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..."

  5. Austin,

    Once again, your comments are so well-crafted and reasoned. You echo many of my own sentiments regarding this situation. I can only speculate about the reasons why this invitation was extended.

    I do feel sorry for this year's graduates who will have to wrestle with this decision which so powerfully affects their graduation day. Hopefully, peaceful heads will prevail, but I fear the discussions may at times become pretty ugly.

    Thanks again for a great post!


  6. I have to agree with Maeve on this one. He is the President and being asked to speak as such. I can not imagine him even mentioning the abortion issue during his speech. I may not agree with him on the abortion issue but I admire (and voted for) the candidate who could hopefully end the war, help the poor, and certainly improve the economy. I understand your points, Concord Pastor, but I went to Notre Dame as well and I am not the least bit offended at his being offered to speak at Commencement!

  7. Notre Dame and the Holy Cross Fathers support and encourage the diversity of opinions, both cultural and religious. Stonehill College, ND's smaller sister school here in Massachusetts(where our daughter is a senior) promotes the same. Critical thinking is encouraged. It is believed that through learning to think critically in all aspects of life, one becomes a person of integrity. Professors are diverse in thought and belief. Catholic ideals and teachings are always upheld and discussed. Why wouldn't this apply to a commencement speaker as well? I'm pretty sure President Obama won't be promoting abortion rights at this ceremony. The award he receives is an honorary doctor of law degree. He has done much good in other areas promoted by the Church and should be respected for that. No one is perfect. Wasn't President Bush, who supports a death penalty, a commencement speaker one year at ND?
    That being said, I'm of the belief that commencement speakers should not be famous or controversial. There are many people in academia who would have wiser and more valuable information to share with parting students.

  8. I wonder if Regis Philbin will weigh in on this. He is a major ND alum and booster.

    I CANNOT envision that President Obama would say one word about abortion or stem cell research at ND graduation exercises. He has been a constitutional law professor. Perhaps he might touch on that experience in his talk, as well as the direction and progress he is making in his presidency on many fronts.

    I think ND's choice of commencement speaker is terrific. Barack Obama has inspired so many young people and I would think in his speech he will continue to inspire young people to volunteer, to be involved, to work for the common good of our country. The Wall Street fiasco of greed, etc., certainly makes for an excellent backdrop of how not to go forward as ND students leave their hallowed halls.


  9. To me, the issue is not what Barack Obama says to Notre Dame - it is what Notre Dame says to Barack Obama.
    Whether the President adresses the issue of abortion is not important (and I would be shocked if he didn't - I think he believes he can change people's minds about any issue). What is important is that the representatives of the nation's most well known Catholic institution make it clear that the Catholic Church does not share his views on abortion.
    Notre Dame needs to embrace this visit as an opportunity to change President Obama's heart and mind about abortion and other life issues, and not the other way around. Failure to address the President's record on life issues should not be viewed as politeness or respect - it will be seen as weakness.
    I hope the President will also "support and encourages the diversity of opinions," as one response put it - and I hope many of the speakers are strong enough to express those beliefs to him.


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