Weigel and Kmiec lock horns over Notre Dame at the Chicago Tribune

Weigel and Kmiec lock horns over Notre Dame at the Chicago Tribune

Prof. Douglas Kmiec / George Weigel
Prof. Douglas Kmiec / George Weigel

.- On Sunday, the Chicago Tribune invited the Catholic scholars Professor Douglas W. Kmiec and George Weigel to express their opposing views about the controversial invitation of President Barack Obama to give the commencement address at the Catholic University of Notre Dame.

In his column “Notre Dame's common ground,” Professor Douglas Kmiec, who was a dean at the university, and who defended Obama as the best option for Catholic voters in the recent election, writes that regarding the selection of commencement speakers “it's depressing to think Mother Teresa is deceased.”

“The controversy over President Barack Obama at Notre Dame –he says- is different. Even as unprecedented numbers of Catholics voted for the president… there's the rub, the Catholic Church is the foremost defender of unborn life, and properly, uncompromising about it. Obama is more pragmatic, accommodating other religious and scientific views that see the origin point of life differently.”

According to Kmiec, Notre Dame's president, Fr. John Jenkins, has “made it plain that the commencement invitation represents no disregard of the church's commitment to life. And while it is unfortunate the local prelate, Bishop John D'Arcy, has chosen to be elsewhere rather than pray with Obama and engage him in conversation, the significance of the bishop's absence and Jenkins' candor is surely not lost on our intellectually gifted 44th president.”

Kmiec then asks: “So with all this reservation and dissent, should Notre Dame regret Obama's acceptance? And in light of the commotion being stirred up by Obama's detractors, should Obama feel unwelcome?” “No, on both counts,” he responds.

“Both Notre Dame and our new president are ‘fightin' Irish’ when it comes to working for social justice,” Kmiec argues, and mentions  the administration's “early victories” extending health insurance to children, rectifying imbalances in a tax code neglectful of the working man, and persuading Congress to allocate abundant resources for educational reform.

Obama’s presence would also be the best way to honor Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, 92, Notre Dame's president emeritus, says Kmiec. “Today, Father Ted has been rendered nearly blind by illness, but he, like Obama, can see clearly two great goods missed by the short-sighted critics of the invitation: first, that while on Inauguration Day, all Americans rejoiced in the election of the first African-American to the presidency, today we are with him or against him irrespective of race, and second, that despite our occasionally profound disagreement, if we are truly to learn to live with one another, we will need to find a way, as Obama has remarked, ‘that reconciles the beliefs of each with the good of all.’”

George Weigel, responded to Kmiec’s piece with an article titled, “The university's egregious error.” Weigel, who was Pope John Paul II’s biographer and is a senior fellow of  Ethics and Public Policy Center, responds that when a university invites a prominent personality to deliver a commencement address, both “the invitation and the award of an honorary degree are a university's stamp of approval on someone's life and accomplishment.”

“Which is precisely why the University of Notre Dame, which claims to be America's premier Catholic institution of higher learning, made an egregious error in inviting President Barack Obama,” he writes.

According to Weigel, since Inauguration Day, “Obama has made several judgment calls that render Notre Dame's invitation little short of incomprehensible,” among them, to put the taxpayers of the United States back into the business of paying for abortions abroad, expanding federal funding for embryo-destructive stem-cell research and defending that position “in a speech that was a parody of intellectually serious moral reasoning.”

Besides all of this, he says, “the Obama administration threatens to reverse federal regulations that protect the conscience rights of Catholic and other pro-life health-care professionals.”

“How any of this, much less the sum total of it, constitutes a set of decisions Notre Dame believes worth emulating is not, to put it gently, easy to understand,” Weigel writes.

Weigel also points out that “the Catholic defense of the right to life is not a matter of arcane or esoteric Catholic doctrine: You don't have to believe in the primacy of the pope, in seven sacraments, in Mary's assumption into heaven, in the divine and human natures of Christ—you don't even have to believe in God—to take seriously the Catholic claim that innocent human life has an inalienable dignity and value that demands the protection of the laws.”

That conviction, the EPPC senior fellow argues, is the one that “once led men like Notre Dame's former president, Father Theodore M. Hesburgh, to work for decades on behalf of civil rights for African-Americans. That claim and that work made it possible for Obama to be elected president of the United States.”

“And, in a bitter irony, it is precisely that claim that is contradicted, indeed trampled on, by the Obama administration's policies on a whole host of life issues.”

“If Notre Dame had invited the president to address a symposium on the grave moral issues the president himself acknowledges being at the heart of the biotech revolution, that, too, would have been a public service. For that is one of the things great universities do: They provide a public forum for serious argument about serious matters touching the common good,” Weigel asserts.

“But, to repeat, a commencement is not a debate, nor is a commencement address the beginning of some sort of ongoing dialogue, as Notre Dame officials have tried to suggest. A commencement address and the degree that typically accompanies it confer an honor. That honor is, or should be, a statement of the university's convictions.”

“Notre Dame's leaders invite the conclusion that their convictions on the great civil rights issues of our time are not those that once led Hesburgh to stand with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and proclaim an America in which all God's children are equal before the law. And that is very bad news for all Americans,” he concludes.

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