Faith on the Quad Notre Dame and Obama: Celebration or Scandal?

On Friday, March 20, the University of Notre Dame released the news that United States President Barack Obama will deliver the school’s commencement address this May.  In addition, the University announced its intent to award Obama an honorary doctoral degree at the ceremony.  This controversial decision has gained much publicity in recent days, making headlines in both Catholic and secular news.  Widespread protest groups have made their voices heard, and an online petition has gathered over 220,000 signatures in less than a week.  Additionally, the bishop of the area has announced that he will not attend the commencement.  But while some are outraged, others adamantly continue to support the decision.  Are the protestors overreacting or do they have a valid point in claiming that Notre Dame’s actions are unacceptable for a Catholic university?    


Let us begin by examining Obama’s record thus far.  In just two short months of presidency, Obama has already secured for himself the title of “most anti-life president” America has ever seen.  Within two days of taking office, he issued a public statement of support for Roe v. Wade.  The next day, in one of his first official actions, he overturned the Mexico City Policy, thus forcing taxpayers to send hundreds of millions of dollars to groups that promote and perform abortions in other nations.  In addition, Obama has made numerous pro-abortion appointments to executive positions and has worked to remove measures put in place by former President Bush to protect pro-life doctors from being forced to perform abortions.  More recently, Obama has not only signed an executive order forcing taxpayers to fund embryonic stem cell research, but he has also removed funding for adult stem cell research, a morally acceptable alternative that has yielded numerous results in recent years.


President of Notre Dame, Rev. John Jenkins, has defended the invitation as “a basis for further positive engagement,” and supporters speak of it as opening the door for discussion.  Dialogue is certainly important; in fact, the Church holds that it is imperative to maintain conversation with those who profess different beliefs.  The value in such dialogue is twofold.  Firstly, in explaining and defending our beliefs to those who do not believe, we gain a deeper understanding of the truths of our faith in contrast to the erroneous views of the world.  In this way, we grow in our own faith.  And secondly, we have the ability to evangelize through dialogue.  By talking to those who disagree with us, we are able to share the truth with them, to patch up old wounds and hostilities, and to spread the Good News.  Thus, there is much to be gained from sincere dialogue conducted in a spirit of charity and oriented towards truth.


An invitation to a dialogue of this sort would have been acceptable from a Catholic university.  But in welcoming Obama as commencement speaker, Notre Dame is not engaging in such a dialogue.  Rather, it is inviting the president to a monologue.  He will speak and the crowds will listen; no one will be permitted to present the Catholic viewpoint.  Thus, the purposes of a Catholic dialogue will not be achieved.  The faithful members of the audience will not have a chance to evangelize, to explain and defend the Church’s position.  Obama has not been invited to Notre Dame for a debate in an attempt to reach the truth; he has been invited to speak at a celebratory ceremony.  Being chosen as a commencement speaker is an honor.  Furthermore, Notre Dame is planning to award Obama an honorary doctorate at the ceremony.  The implications of this gesture are clear.  Even if an invitation to deliver a commencement address might be discussed in terms of ecumenical outreach, granting a diploma is an unmistakable honor and award.


In 2004, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued a statement, “Catholics in Politic Life,” discussing the treatment of pro-abortion politicians.  The bishops make it very clear: “The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.”  While the Church encourages dialogue with those who disagree with its teachings, the bishops have firmly maintained that it is absolutely unacceptable to offer awards and honors to those who blatantly defy Church teaching on essential issues such as the value of human life.


Rev. Jenkins has claimed that Notre Dame is honoring Obama as a leader and that the gesture should not be taken to mean that the school agrees with all of his opinions.  However, the University has made no attempt to publicize strong disagreement with any of the President’s specific views.  In issuing the invitation, Notre Dame has failed to speak out against Obama’s anti-life policies, remaining quiet on crucial areas where the president’s actions fall short of Catholic teaching.  For a Catholic institution, silence is not an option.  While it is important to respect the president’s role, it is more important to stand up for innocent human life.  Yet instead of vocalizing any disapproval for the evils being condoned by Obama, Notre Dame is simply honoring him, allowing onlookers to see praise without criticism.


As Catholics, we are responsible for evangelizing – through both our words and actions – to the secular world.  When a prominent Catholic university fails to take a strong stand against the immoral stances of a public figure, the watching world will notice.  It is one thing to listen to the opinions of those with whom you disagree.  But to honor those who blatantly violate fundamental Church teaching?  What is this saying?  What message is this projecting to the secular world?  We must live as solid witnesses, taking the utmost care not to compromise the principles of our faith.


There are hundreds of prominent public figures whose presence at Notre Dame’s commencement would be encouraging and inspiring to those who are completing their education and entering the next stage of life.  Examples of faith-filled men and women making a difference in their daily lives while abiding by Church teaching can be found all over the country.  With so many better choices, was there really a need to pick someone who so openly defies Catholic teaching? 


While it is certainly important to host diverse speakers, Catholic universities have a duty to form students in their faith.  The alarming rates at which Catholics of all ages voted for Obama in the last election - despite continuous guidance from bishops across the country to avoid voting for pro-abortion candidates - suggest that many Catholics are in need of stronger formation.  Considering this reality, Notre Dame and other Catholic institutions throughout the country should be working diligently to reinforce Catholic teaching, not contradicting it and acting in ways that risk drawing people even further away from the truth.

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