University of Notre Dame President Rev. John I. Jenkins has written to the Graduating Class of 2009, praising their conduct over recent weeks in the debate over the school’s commencement invitation to President Obama. Defending the university’s commitment to the sanctity of life, he argued President Obama’s invitation would help cultural engagement.
Fr. Jenkins, noting that he took office at the same time the upcoming graduates arrived at Notre Dame, said he felt a "special kinship" with them.
"During your years here we have endeavored to train you in the various disciplines and urged you to ask the larger questions – discussing not only the technical and practical but also the ethical and spiritual dimensions of pressing issues. I have been proud of you as you’ve grappled with intellectual, political, and spiritual questions. But I have never been more proud than I have been watching the way you’ve conducted yourselves over the past several weeks."
Acknowledging that the invitation of President Obama has triggered debate, he said in some cases the dispute has grown "heated" even among those who "agree completely" on Church teaching about the sanctity of human life.
"You have discussed this issue with each other while being observed, interviewed, and evaluated by people who are interested in this story. You engaged each other with passion, intelligence and respect. And I saw no sign that your differences led to division.
"You inspire me. We need the wider society to be more like you; it is good that we are sending you into that world on Sunday."
Fr. Jenkins said he was "saddened" that friends of the university have suggested the invitation to Obama indicates ambiguity about the school’s devotion to Catholic teaching.
"The University and I are unequivocally committed to the sanctity of human life and to its protection from conception to natural death," he said.
Fr. Jenkins said the university has a "long custom" of conferring honorary degrees on the sitting U.S. president.
However, he did not mention that the university did not invite President Bill Clinton, who like President Obama was a supporter of permissive abortion laws.
The honorary degree "has never been a political statement or an endorsement of policy," Fr. Jenkins continued. "It is the University’s expression of respect for the leader of the nation and the Office of the President."
He alluded to I Peter 2:17’s admonition to honor the leader of the secular order. He said Catholic university has "a special obligation" to "engage the culture."
"The President’s visit to Notre Dame can help lead to broader engagement on issues of importance to the country and of deep significance to Catholics," Fr. Jenkins continued. "Ultimately, I hope that the conversations and the good will that come from this day will contribute to closer relations between Catholics and public officials who make decisions on matters of human life and human dignity."
There was "much to admire and celebrate" in the work of President Obama, Fr. Jenkins said, listing his policies on immigration, health care, poverty, and foreign policy.
"As the first African-American holder of this office, he has accelerated our country’s progress in overcoming the painful legacy of slavery and segregation. He is a remarkable figure in American history, and I look forward to welcoming him to Notre Dame."
Fr. Jenkins’ letter closed by reminding graduates that commencement is "your day."
"My fervent prayer is that May 17 will be a joyous day for you and your family. You are the ones we celebrate and applaud. Congratulations, and may God bless you," he said.
Seeking comment, CNA contacted ND Response, a student group coalition opposed to President Obama’s invitation to the school, but did not receive a response by press time.