May 20, 2009
The day I knew Hillary Clinton was in trouble last year was the day I saw Barack Obama at the Meadowlands in New Jersey last February.
A sports arena is his venue. A sports arena with young people, even better. Stevie Wonder and Sheryl Crow not required. He, of course, had all three and more when he was finally nominated, appearing at Mile High Stadium in Denver this summer. I was there too. And, like at the Meadowlands, the nothingness was delivered with such an attractive vacuousness that it rocked the house.
Something similar happened at the University of Notre Dame’s Joyce Center this Sunday. Yes, on the Lord’s Day, the president seemed to win over enough of the Notre Dame community to make it look like another victory march. And why wouldn’t he? The choices before those on campus appeared to be: standing with (a) Alan Keyes (the loser in the Barack Obama’s one and only campaign for U.S. Senate) defending aborted-fetus banners or (b) a supposedly healing historic rock star of a president.
It’s not like the University of Notre Dame did much of anything to suggest that there is a reason to be anything but proud of Barack Obama. The priority for Fr. John Jenkins, president of Notre Dame, appeared to be to laud the president, of course, and to justify his own decision to have Obama honored at the commencement exercises.
One could try to dismiss the event as appropriate, one among many campus events during a given year. And, other presidents, after all, have spoken at Notre Dame commencement exercises. Further, the commencement doesn’t represent everything that happens at the university. Besides, even N.D.’s website says (courtesy of Fr. John Jenkins, of all people): "We have a much more challenging mission than most universities. Most universities strive simply to be excellent educational institutions by the accepted standards of the profession. We do this at Notre Dame, and we have had great success. But we also foster and celebrate a distinctive mission to be a Catholic university, inspired and guided by a great spiritual tradition."
The N.D. defender there would have a point: Other things do in fact happen at Notre Dame. There’s the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture and the Notre Dame Fund to Protect Human Life, the Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education, and the Edith Stein Project.
But none of those things were on the cover of the major national newspapers Monday morning. None of them had events that were covered live on the cable news channels and live streamed on the Internet. Faithfully Catholic groups and individuals there are sowing seeds but in a soil that just got dumped on by a poisonous confusion.
Fr. Jenkins talked Sunday about being tested. Unfortunately, in his words and in his actions, he failed a significant one: Would Notre Dame witness to the world, as Mary Ann Glendon, who passed up the school’s highest honor did, or succumb to its moral confusion? At the commencement, Fr. Jenkins said: "When we face differences with fellow citizens, we will be tested: do we keep trying, with love and a generous spirit, to appeal to ethical principles that might be persuasive to others – or do we condemn those who differ with us for not seeing the truth that we see?"
He continued, "The first approach can lead to healing, the second to hostility. We know which approach we are called to as disciples of Christ."
The gospel – literally – he was teaching was one where you make nice with the moneychangers in the temple. You don’t love and respect your neighbor enough to even tell him what’s true, never mind engage in any prudent but clear fraternal correction.
Jenkins went on, explaining to the graduates: "The world you enter today is torn by division – and is fixed on its differences."
"Differences must be acknowledged," he said, "and in some cases cherished. But too often differences lead to pride in self and contempt for others, until two sides – taking opposing views of the same difference -- demonize each other. Whether the difference is political, religious, racial, or national -- trust falls, anger rises, and cooperation ends … even for the sake of causes all sides care about."
Translation: Those people outside, those people interrupting, those meddlesome critics – they are the unenlightened.
That’s easy to accept when the prayerful protests, the Rosaries being prayed, and the reasonable and faithful speeches being delivered and pieces being written aren’t what get the make the headlines and cable-news coverage. That’s easy to accept when what you see of the opposing view is anger. That’s easy to accept when you don’t know any better.
And I wonder how many in the Class of 2009 at the University of Notre Dame know any better. The image seared into my memory of the weekend’s spectacle was a male student wearing a t-shirt that read: "PLEASE DON’T RUIN MY GRADUATION." If he only understood the significance of the school, of the moment, of the call of a Catholic.
If you listened to the valedictorian, Brennan Bollman, at N.D.’s commencement; you heard that Notre Dame is different from other places because the housekeepers leave notes on students’ dry-erase board. She challenged her fellow graduates to be inspired by their faith to be friendly to their bus drivers.
In other words, what this young woman learned about faith at Notre Dame she could have picked up at any Christian (and then some) university? And unless she forgot to mention they were quotes from encyclicals ("What’s that? A Notre Dame senior just asked), you don’t need to be a Catholic housekeeper to leave kind notes.
In an interview, though, she elucidated. As the Huffington Post (which describes her as a "pro-life biology major") wrote it up: "Bollman says Obama is practicing Catholic values in his administration. Like Jesus, Bollman says, Obama is trying to invite ‘everyone to the table.’"
Bollman took issue with Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George saying that the commencement invitation and honoring of Obama demonstrates that Notre Dame "didn’t understand what it means to be Catholic when they issued this invitation." She replied, "We know exactly what it is to be Catholic because we are inviting President Obama to speak to us."
Her words suggest the Class of 2009 may have been robbed of a Catholic education. We know they were robbed of commencement leadership from their president.
On the Monday after Notre Dame’s commencement, Rush Limbaugh reminded his audience that Barack Obama has said of his daughters: "If they make a mistake. I don’t want them to be punished with a baby."
But on Sunday, Father Jenkins listed abortion and embryo-destroying stem-cell research as if they were just other issues, like debating health-care, education, or cap-and-trade. They, of course, are not, as important as so many aspects of all of them are. Catholics owe Limbaugh thanks for his clarity in the face of a capitulating campus president and his willing audience Sunday.
I agreed with one key thing that Judge John Noonan, who replaced Mary Ann Glendon at the commencement, said: "Great is truth. It will prevail." Notre Dame might not have helped elucidate what truth is while the country was watching this weekend, but a power greater even than the Fighting Irish remains at work -- and will prevail.