It's Not "Just" a Symbol

UND Doctor of Law academic gown: Image from Tlachactales

I polished up an earlier post and submitted it to The Pilot
, the archdiocesan weekly newspaper. I'm pleased that they saw fit to print it in the current issue and I thought I'd give it another run here.

It’s Not “Just” A Symbol

Catholics bristle when the Eucharist is referred to as a symbol not simply because we believe in the real presence of Christ in the sacrament but also because we have come to think a symbol is merely “like” what it represents, standing for something that is absent, not present.

But a deeper understanding of this word shows that a true symbol catches up in itself more than it could possibly be imagined to contain. Infinitely more than the sum of its parts, a symbol holds and reveals more than it appears to be: a universe of meaning, experience and reality. A symbol does not stand alone. Ritual activity functions as the context in which a symbol is proclaimed, celebrated and entered into by those who revere it.

While not in the least attempting to put the Eucharist and graduation ceremonies on equal footing, let me suggest that a university commencement is a ritual of symbol-making in just the sense I have described.

Commencement is an initiation rite through which new members are welcomed by the already initiated. Vested in caps and gowns and academic hoods, participants form a procession respecting and honoring the academy's hierarchy from doctor to bachelor. There are words, signs and gestures of acceptance, belonging and relationship. Consider the valedictory and other speeches; the conferral of degrees, the calling of names, the imposition of doctoral hoods, the awarding of medals; and the presentation of diplomas caligraphed with longed-for credentials, handed down from authority to those now fully recognized as sons and daughters of the alma mater. Commencement is a complex ritual through which the life of the school disclosed, celebrated and entered into by those who revere its symbols and the reality they hold and reveal.

On account of all this, a graduate proudly displays a diploma so that others will know that he or she has a personal share in the universe of meaning and life particular to the school whose seal the parchment bears.

A university can play a football game (with its own rituals) on any Saturday afternoon but commencement is a truly special event requiring the full complement of the school’s “players.” Commencement bears and hands on, literally, the stamp, the seal of the institution's approval and witness. The symbolic ritual of commencement gathers up in itself all that the school is and makes present its reason for being: the love of learning, in pursuit of the truth, in service of humankind. And in the case of a Catholic university, the learning, truth and service are intimately bound up with faith in God and the mission of the Church.

Commencement, then, is not “just” a symbol but rather a reality disclosing a universe of meaning. Commencement is the school's annual ritual for making symbol of its history, purpose, accomplishments and its hope for the future.

It is to just this moment that the University of Notre Dame has invited President Barack Obama and not merely as a guest. He will receive a parchment bearing the University's seal, honoring him as a Doctor of Laws. He will be clothed with the school's colors and with its academic mantle. In the commencement address, his will be the principal voice in Notre Dame’s annual rite of passage and prestige.

The University’s invitation to President Obama and his acceptance of it are not the business of coming together at a common table for dialogue - although true to Notre Dame's ethos such a meeting would be. Commencement is neither a seminar nor a symposium. Commencement is a ritual revelation of the university's mind, heart and soul: commencement is a symbol of Notre Dame, in the best and deepest sense of that word.

Both Barack Obama and Notre Dame know this well and, for weal and for woe, each has seized an opportunity.



  1. I saw your article in the Pilot.
    My hope on May 17 is that President Obama will seize the opportunity to speak on the social justice issues that both he and the Church promote.
    On that day I will be attending my daughter's commencement ceremony at ND's sister school, Stonehill College in Easton Ma. I know that I look forward to the day with much love, pride and excitement. I hope the day goes well for the parents at the ND commencement. My fear is that protesters could ruin the special day for them.

  2. I am very pleased that Notre Dame did not rescind invitation to President Obama to speak at Graduation ceremony.

    A university should be a place for respect for differing opinions in an atmosphere of exploring and listening to other views.

    I understand that Pres. Obama will be honored for being the first black American presiden and for the break down of racial barriers...that should be enough, in my opinion, to earn him a place at Notre Dame's graduation..

  3. A commencement ceremony and speech are not, by any stretch of the imagination, a venue for "exploring and listening to other views" - with which I would have absolutely not problem.

    It's my understanding that my alma mater has a standing invitation to a president in his first year to be honored and speak at graduation. I would be interested in your source for understanding that the invitation was offered because of Obama's being the first black president. I would hope that Notre Dame would not issue invitations on the basis of color.

  4. What can I say? Just brilliant! Congragulations for the publication, Fr. Flemming.

  5. Commencement is the school’s annual ritual for making symbol of its history, purpose, accomplishments...well said, Sir!

  6. Notre Dame does have a policy of extending an invitation to the President of the United States in the first year of his/her term. Such was the case in 2001, when the university extended an invitation to George W. Bush, who at the time was the chief executive of a state who presided over the most executions of criminals. That, obviously, was in flagrant violation of Church teaching.

    Though that is the policy of the University of Notre Dame, in defending the decision to extend the invitation to President Obama, the university's opposition to racism, especially Fr. Hesburgh's long service to the cause of civil rights, has been mentioned as part of the context for inviting the first African American President of the United States.

  7. Why did you not take exception (or did you?) to the fact that Cardinal John Egan, then Archbishop of New York, invited Presidential Candidate Barack Obama to the Al Smith Dinner last October in New York, permitted him to speak to a largely Catholic group as well as a nationally televised audience, and dined with him, seated to his right? Was there no symbolism in that gathering?

  8. It's hard to imagine that any human act is without some level of symbol, and that includes the Al Smith dinner.

    There are times, however, when the community gathers for the express purpose of celebrating its symbols in a rather solemn, ritual fashion and does the work of incorporating new members - as at a commencement.

    The principal difference between the two events is that the Al Smith dinner included both major candidates for the office of president and did not intend any formal honoring of either, much less did it vest or award either candidate with the symbols of the Archdiocese of New York.

    I would have no problem with the president of ND inviting Obama for dinner, for conversation, for debate or, as I put it, "a seminar or symposium."

  9. That's so very nicely said, ConcordPastor!

  10. Peter,
    Even though the Church has been very consistent lately in opposing the death penalty, it's only a matter of justice and accuracy to make a distinction. As you well said, in the death penalty we are dealing with the "execution of criminals". In the case of abortion we are dealing with cold, premeditated murder of an innocent humand being. No matter how wrong death penalty is (and I totally agree it is wrong), it can never be put at the same level as abortion.

  11. It was Cardinal Edward Egan, not Cardinal John Egan.

  12. Xavier,

    The issues don't need to be put on the same level. The principle is of opposition to Church teaching, not the issues which individuals oppose. Regrading their opposition to the Gospel of Life, Bush and Obama should both be excluded from a Notre Dame Commencement.

  13. Is the Holy Father, Benedict XVI, to be admonished for giving the honorary award of Canon of the Basilica of St. John Lateran to France's President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is a twice-divorced cultural Catholic who is pro-abortion? Or is this also some type of exception that doesn't fit the Notre Dame situation like the Al Smith Dinner with Cardinal Edward Egan?

  14. Peter,
    I have to say that I agree with you. I wouldn't invite either of them.

  15. Xavier, you need to investigate (or at least think) a bit more before you make any more pronouncements.

    First, we don't know that the death penalty is imposed on only innocent people. Innocent people are convicted of crimes every day.

    Second, most abortions are far from cold-blooded. For the most part they are the result of painful decision making and take a great emotional toll on the woman having the abortion.

    Both of these issues are far more complex than can be summed up in slogans or catch phrases.

  16. Josh: I believe there's a difference, historical and subtle, between the two instances. I was helped in understanding this by Elena's post on the topic over at Tea At Trianon.

    Be sure to read Elena's exchange with Terry in the combox on her post.

  17. Piskie,
    Perhaps you should remember that abortion is *always* the killing of an innocent and undefended person in a most brutal way. The fact that mothers suffer too in making the decision is in recognition of that fact. It does not excuse the act, which is murder. The emotional toll on those who have abortions and those who provide them -- on everyone involved -- is another strong argument against laws allowing it.

    Abortion has been argued many times before on this blog, unfortunately. It is absolutely prohibited by the Catholic Church. It will stay prohibited. The Church cannot change its stance, since abortion violates natural and moral law.

    Irish Gal

  18. The link to Tea at Trianon is non functioning.

  19. Sorry about the malfunctioning link.

    Try this.

  20. Anonymous, my point went whooshing over your head. My comments were about characterizing abortion as "cold-blooded." I wasn't taking on any other points.

    It is clear to me that that it would be pointless for me to do so, since we apparently have very different definitions of "person." I would agree on "potential human" or "embryo" or "fetus," but I do not view a mostly undifferentiated clump of cells as a person. I would also question your use of a legal term, "murder,"
    but let's not take this any farther. You and I both know it won't go anywhere profitable.

  21. just another piskie: You've just made me feel a whole lot better. I didn't know how to put into words what I was feeling from reading that comment. But I agree ... I would not use "murder". Most people who seek or have had abortions are young, desperate,very scared, and believe at the time, ... this is the only solution. It is not cold blooded murder for most who go through this heart wrenching ordeal.

  22. Please read the note on the sidebar regarding posting comments. Comments questioning the sincerity or good will of others will not be published.

  23. Anyone who reads this blog with some regularity knows that I hold a pro-life position - I was taken to task for that several times and in a number of ways in my posts in the campaign leading up to the election in November '08. My stance on the Obama invitation to ND is another instance of where I stand on this issue.

    Others hold different views and as long as those views are expressed with good will, they will be posted here.

    Comments that counter other points of view will be posted. Comments that question the good will or sincerity of other commenters will not be posted. Comment on the comments, not on the commenters.

    Again: note the guidelines for commenters on the sidebar.

    Several times above commenters have written about why "most abortions" take place. I don't have the stats at hand but it would be interesting for someone to do some homework here and give us some statistics on the circumstances under which "most abortions" take place.

  24. From the sidebar:

    Comments respectful of all who will read them are invited and welcomed. Comments questioning others' good will and sincerity will not be published. I don't agree with everything posted here so I doubt that you will either. I believe that in respectfully discussing different points of view we can learn from each other in seeking the truth. -ConcordPastor

  25. Dear Piskie and Christine,
    I'm very sorry if I hurt somebody with my description of abortion as "cold blooded" and "premeditated". I never meant to judge anybody, only the action. And I know that in most cases the mother goes through a horrendous emotional ordeal. In many cases, it leaves scars that last for a lifetime. I don't need to do any research to know this.
    Anyway, without minimizing the responsibility of the mother in the action, I had in mind the doctors who do the abortions. I don't need to investigate or think much to "pronounce" cold blood and premeditation on their part. It's just pointing at facts: they do it professioanlly, routinely, and by appointment. If that's not cold blood and premeditation... well, I don't know where they might be found.
    As for the mothers, I have always been of the opinion that nobody should rush to condemn them, and that the law should contemplate all the circumstances that diminish their responsibility in the action. I would never send a mother to prison for an abortion.
    But the inescapable fact is that abortion is the killing of an innocent human being, which is legally and commonly called murder.
    Piskie, you say it's not a person. You say that it's a clump of cells, and I agree. We are all a clump of cells. You say those cells are mostly undifferentiated, and I disagree. They are as differentiated as any other cell forming part of the clump you and I are. You can research this, since it's a medical fact: each of those cells contains all the genetic information that results in the differentiation of every individual person. Take the ADN of any of your cells and it will contain exactly the same information that could have been found in any of the cells when you were a fetus. And as you may know, that information is unique for every individual human being. It does not get any more differentiated than that.
    You may still deny them the quality of personhood, which is what I would probably feel strongly tempted to do if I was ever involved in an abortion. Like I would have probably denied personhood to negroes if I was a southern planter owner of a good batch of slaves.
    Please do not think I seek to demonize anybody. I don't judge people who are involved in abortions. As I don't judge people who owned slaves. In fact, I believe there were many kindhearted and well intentioned human beings who owned slaves and defended their right to do it. As I firmly believe there are many kindhearted and well intentioned people who support abortion, or have been involved in one or many.

  26. Comments here have wandered off topic to a related issue that has often been debated here and in other places. If I could edit comments before publishing them, I might think of posting the constructive substance of them, minus the ad hominem elements -but Blogger.com doesn't offer that possibility.

    Comments closed on this post.