Monday morning: Quarterbacking the Irish

ND President Fr. John Jenkins and President Barack Obama arrive at Notre Dame commencement: Photo by Gerald Herbert/AP

I've posted ten times on the Notre Dame-Obama situation and this afternoon, after our parish May Procession, I sat down to watch the proceedings on the platform in South Bend. Here are some Monday morning thoughts...

• The blogosphere has been red-hot on this topic for over a month. Much of the discourse has exceeded what I judge to be the boundaries of civil conversation. What are and will be the terms of discourse as this conversation continues and what language will best advance the cause the Church espouses?

• Some of my readers have written to me off-blog with concerns that find a good summation in the May 11 editorial in America. While I think the editors paint a rosier-than-real picture of the Vatican's stance on some questions, the substance of their essay deserves a careful reading. The editorial raises questions about the possibility and danger of a sectarian Catholicism in the U.S. That's a real question and the furor surrounding Notre Dame's action here brings it into sharp relief. Is sectarianism a threat to the Catholic Church in the US? Is it already our problem?

• I listened with what I hoped to be an open mind to the president's speech. While many will charge that the university was co-opted in the process, Obama's speech was masterful in many ways. I had thought he wouldn't touch the issue of abortion but he did and he did so as a statesman would. It's unfortunate that Obama got to speak of dialogue in a situation in which there was no opportunity for it. It will be interesting to see if some will believe that dialogue occurred here.

Here's a snip from the monologue:
So let us work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions, let's reduce unintended pregnancies. Let's make adoption more available. Let's provide care and support for women who do carry their children to term. Let's honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded not only in sound science, but also in clear ethics, as well as respect for the equality of women." Those are things we can do.

Now, understand — understand, Class of 2009, I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. Because no matter how much we may want to fudge it — indeed, while we know that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory — the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable. Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature.
I'm not easily persuaded by the "reduce the number..." language but any reduction is always to be perceived as an advance. Will and how will the Church work to support efforts to reduce the numbers here? How will we avoid the problems already incurred by the all-or-nothing approach?

• Some pundits are asserting that the Bishops' Conference should/must/will take Notre Dame to the woodshed and mete out some punishment for having invited Obama to the party yesterday. I'm not savvy enough about the USCCB to know if something like that will happen - or enjoy any level of success if it does. And that brings me to ask what we believe success is here. Given the microphone in South Bend, Obama has clearly stated what he thinks success will look like here. How will the Church judge success on these issues in this pluralistic society? How will we negotiate that success?

• Thousands in the ACC at Notre Dame interrupted Obama's speech with applause - many times. Their level of acceptance and support was palpable. Those applauding were parents who have spent over $200,000 for a Notre Dame education and students who are graduates of what many consider the top shelf of Catholic education in the US. They were cheering a president whom Catholics supported over McCain 54% vs. 45%. Given these political parameters, what strategy will best serve the mission of the Catholic position and its episcopacy in the years ahead?

• Although I believe the Obama invitation was a mistake, I don't believe that this event undercuts 160+ years of Notre Dame's Catholic history or topples a tradition deeply rooted in faith. Some imagine or even hope that this is the end of Notre Dame as a top Catholic university - it is not. The crisis to be addressed is not restricted to this particular university and this year's graduation speaker. The crisis has to do with the unraveling of ties between the the people of the Church, their bishops and the academic community.

Given the climate in the nation and in the Catholic community, yesterday's experience at Notre Dame will have the effect of presenting a strikingly positive image to Americans at large and Catholics in particular. The Church and its leaders will do well to take that into account and navigate wisely the depths of this crisis.



  1. I had tears in my eyes as I watched and listened to President Obama's speech. I thought his speech was masterful: his connections to Fr. Hesburgh and Cardinal Bernadin, his humor re the Notre Dame student-basketball-for-fun team, his courage to address the contentious issues that have surrounded his invitation to speak at commencement, his appeals to the better angels of our natures, his grace under fire - all laudable. Fr. Jenkins and Notre Dame should hold their heads high for their decision to invite President Obama and to confer the honorary doctor of laws. This president is an extraordinary individual who genuinely does seek the common good for all. He will accomplish great things during his administration and deserves our support and prayers.


  2. Rosemary wrote: "This president is an extraordinary individual who genuinely does seek the common good for all."

    This president also acknowledges that there are two sides on the life issue so let me be the first in this combox to say, from the other side, that many see that this president does not seek the good of the defenseless who wait to be born.

  3. I watched the entire Notre Dame Commencement ceremony on line and was very much impressed. I thought both Fr. Jenkins and President Obama gave incredible speeches. I believe each man respected the other - always a first step in dialogue. And I agree with President Obama - we should work on reducing the number of pregnancies.

  4. The bishops have been facing the abortion issue in the same manner and from the same bunker for 38 years. It seemingly has been all or nothing. Little progress has been made over these years in spite of the fact that five Supreme Court justices have been appointed by "so-called" pro-life Presidents.

    Perhaps there truly is another way of decreasing abortions in our country, and is it not this that motivates us as Catholic Christians?

    I welcome President Obama's challenge of decreasing abortions through social action programs such as assistance to new mothers, greater availability of adoptions, and the like.

    I was proud of Notre Dame, proud of Notre Dame's administration, and proud of President Obama's commencement address.

  5. I think that I have seen a change in President Obama's approach to this issue. Without question he is trying to help the mothers who carry "the defenseless who wait to be born" with economic assistance and by encouraging adoption as an alternative to what must be a wrenching decision for them. I think it is unfortunate that Catholic Charities no longer provides adoption services. I don't know, but I imagine they greatly helped women who were struggling with this question to opt to put their babies up for adoption. Sad, in my opinion, that the Church chose to abandon a wonderful mission.


  6. Well--here we are with the elephant in the Vatican---birth control----are we really ready to dialogue the abortion issue?

  7. Well said, Flit. The Vatican wants no abortion AND no birth control. The ideal - but certainly not reality. (And don't even mention the rythmn method. I have several siblings born from that "method"!)

  8. Anonymous:

    The President wants fewer abortions AND no control on abortions. Perhaps his ideal - but certainly not reality. (Won't even mention the rhythm method - unless your sibs regret that the "method" failed.)

  9. His siblings probably not. But what about Anonymous? (just kidding).
    To Josh I want to say that even though reducing the number of abortion is certainly a goal, an important goal on which we can work together with this administration, it is not the only goal of the pro-life movement. It matters, and it matters a lot, the principle of it. And the principle hinges on a legal disposition that positively discriminates against a whole class of people, the unborn, just for their age. The protection that the law provides to any of us can be denied to them if they are not born soon enough.
    We don't want a country that upholds discriminatory laws. Just as the emancipationists couldn't bear the thought of living in a country where slavery was legal. Of course they cared about this or that slave been freed, but reducing the number of slaves was never going to be enough.
    As I always say, it's not a matter of religion or philosophy. It's a matter of biology and law. I fight against abortion not only because I want to see less abortions, but above all because I strongly believe that the law (the judicial decision on Roe v. Wade) is blatantly inconstitutional. Our forefathers wrote and signed: "“We hold these truths to be self-evident: all human beings are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights (…) to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. A country founded on such premises cannot hold a constitution that discriminates against any kind of people.

  10. Rev. Gene VavrickMay 19, 2009 at 2:38 AM


    Great coverage of the Commencement at ND.

    I hope this marks the beginning of a true "Conversation" between the political leaders of our country and those who are praying for, working for, Life in all its forms.

    The President's speech was masterful, as was John Jenkin's. I hope these reasoned words will help the conversation as we go forward with our dialogues. We all still have much to learn from each other.



  11. With all the talks given, Notre Dame has more than made its case for inviting President Obama.

    Meanwhile, the bishops are being represented by Randall Terry. That's not a good development.

  12. Peter, where is your evidence of that? I certainly haven't read or heard of it.


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