Obama and Notre Dame

Two great annual festivals of hope, both accompanied by venerable liturgical rites, happen to fall in the same week this year: Opening Day and Easter Sunday. For a Christian and a baseball fan, there’s no better time to be alive.

Emboldened by this air of new possibility, I’d like to float a hope regarding the increasingly acrimonious debate over the University of Notre Dame and its invitation to President Barack Obama to deliver this year’s commencement address. In a nutshell, my hope is that American Catholics will manage their disagreements over the Obama appearance without turning this into yet another nasty front in our version of the culture wars.

For that to happen, two virtues will need to be more in evidence than they have been so far: charity and perspective.


First, let’s be clear about something: Inviting a pro-choice president of the United States to speak at the country’s premier Catholic university may be highly charged at the level of symbolism and political fallout, but that does not make its advisability a matter of dogma. There’s no heresy implied in either supporting or opposing the move, so Catholics ought to be able to disagree without casting one another as enemies of the faith.

One side believes bringing Obama to Notre Dame will open a conversation, forcing him to confront the church’s teaching on the sanctity of life. The other argues that giving Obama a platform suggests a spirit of “agree to disagree” on critical issues such as abortion and embryonic stem cell research that amounts to compromise with evil. Either side could be wrong, even disastrously so, without thereby committing apostasy.

To date, alas, this has not been the spirit of much conversation.

A poison pen e-mail currently making the rounds, for example, has a picture of a guy behind bars under the fake headline of “Jenkins arrested for impersonating a Catholic.” The reference is to Holy Cross Fr. John Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president. In slightly less acerbic form, similar charges have even come from a few bishops. Those comments should probably be chalked up to the intensity people feel about the pro-life cause, rather than a sober evaluation of Notre Dame’s leadership, because otherwise they’re a tremendous injustice both to Jenkins and to the Congregation of the Holy Cross -- an order which, in my experience, doesn’t need lessons from anyone on what it means to be both faithfully Catholic and committed to the educational enterprise.

I speak as someone who taught in a Holy Cross high school in Los Angeles (also named Notre Dame), where I saw the legacy of the order’s founder, Blessed Basil Moreau, in action.

In February 2006, I also happened to be at the Lateran University in Rome when Notre Dame awarded an honorary doctorate to Bishop Salvatore Fisichella, then rector of the Lateran. (Fisichella is now president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, where he plays a lead role in making the case for the unborn.) Both Jenkins and Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria, Ill., a Holy Cross father and a trustee at Notre Dame, delivered perhaps the most impressive treatments of Catholic higher education I’ve ever heard.

“The church always faces crises,” Jenkins said that day. “Our strength is to face them with reason and hope, grounded in the gospel; to take confidence in the truth discovered through reason; to never fear the truth; and to show charity towards all.” For his part, Jenky argued that church-run schools “should never choose between being excellent or being Catholic.” Our Catholic tradition, he said, is “so profound, so wide and so self-confident in its exploration of truth that it can dare to ask questions and promote dialogue.”

One can disagree with particular judgment calls, but let’s not go down the road of questioning the Catholic identity of figures so obviously committed to the intersection of faith and reason.

At the same time, let’s also stipulate that one can be sincerely troubled by the honor Notre Dame appears to be bestowing upon the president without thereby becoming a flack for the Republican Party.

In a recent interview with The New York Times, Notre Dame theologian Fr. Richard McBrien asserted that those unhappy with the invitation are “simply Republicans upset that Obama won the election, and they want to pick a fight.” I’m not sure how true that is sociologically -- McBrien knows the personalities at Notre Dame better than I do. In principle, however, one does not have to be a disgruntled McCain voter to be alarmed by rolling out the red carpet for a leader whose positions on abortion and embryonic stem cell research are clearly at odds with what the church considers basic principles of justice.

Both Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have defined the defense of human life from conception to natural death as the towering human rights struggle of our time. Someone striving to “think with the church” would obviously have grounds for feeling wary about the Obama invitation that go well beyond lust for political payback.

What makes this such a difficult case, in fact, is precisely that both sides are upholding core Catholic values: the sanctity of life and the imperative of dialogue. Figuring out how to reconcile those values is not easy under the best of circumstances, and hasty certainties don’t help. Neither do unfounded assumptions about the motives of Catholics who reach different conclusions.


In a recent essay for National Review Online, noted Catholic author George Weigel asserted that “virtually the entire sentient world” is aware of the melee surrounding Notre Dame and Obama. Unless you define the “sentient world” as the American blogosphere, however, that’s a fairly mammoth over-statement. I just spent two weeks in Cameroon, and I can report that few people there seem worked up over who’s speaking to Irish grads this spring.

This is the chronic Achilles’ heel of American Catholicism: we presume that our issues are the world’s issues, often leaving Catholics elsewhere scratching their heads about what they perceive as our insularity.

To be sure, the debate over the Obama invite is no tempest in a teapot. The question of how to engage public figures who hold pro-choice views without seeming to endorse, or wink at, those views, is critically important. At the same time, however, it’s a big, complicated world, and this is hardly the only matter deserving of American Catholic attention.

Here’s an illustration of the point. As it happens, Notre Dame’s commencement ceremony falls on May 17, just two days after Pope Benedict XVI will wind up his May 8-15 visit to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories. It’s arguably the pope’s most important foreign voyage to date, with a host of critical issues on the table: the future of Catholic-Muslim and Catholic-Jewish relations, the fate of shrinking Christian minorities in the Arab world, and the church’s role in promoting Middle East peace, to name just three. The United States and the American Catholic community are, or at least ought to be, major players in all those dramas.

It would be tragic if the fracas over Notre Dame were to occlude the high stakes of this trip from American eyes. Keeping the bigger picture in view is not only a matter of justice, but I suspect it would also make the dispute over Obama and Notre Dame seem more manageable. Among other things, it could offer a reminder that what we have in common as Catholics, set against a wider frame of reference, usually looms larger than what divides us.

Thus I dare to hope that, after an Easter lull in hostilities, combatants in the Notre Dame/Obama row can return to a more charitable exchange, with a deeper sense of perspective. A cynic might contend that’s the Catholic equivalent of believing the Royals have a shot at the pennant, but this, after all, is the perennial charm of Opening Day -- for a brief moment, anything seems possible.

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