Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Furor Over President Obama Speaking at Notre Dame

The University of Notre Dame has invited President Obama to speak at the University's commencement ceremony this spring and this invitation has stirred up a furor among some Catholics both within and without the University community. Apparently, the problem is that President Obama supports women's reproductive rights (i.e., abortion) and, because this view is antithetical to Catholic teaching, some have argued that the University should not have invited President Obama to speak. I have several problems with this whole matter.

First, I want to be clear that I am not criticizing any Catholics for their personal theological or moral views. They have the right to those views and I have the right to agree or disagree. I don't know much about Catholic theology or teaching with regard to abortion or anything else. But the issue at hand has nothing to do with whose views are "right" or whether those views are well-founded or properly based in theological doctrine. Rather, the issue is whether those views should bear upon the decision of whether to invite the President of the United States to speak at graduation.

So, let's examine the issue of whether President Obama should have been invited to speak at Notre Dame. The first thing to remember is that he has been invited to speak at commencement, not to a class on theology or morals or ethics. Students at prestigious universities look forward to the opportunity to hear from "important" people at their commencements; it is a right of passage, in a way. To that end, it is likely that President Obama's speech will center on a universal topic like living a good life, helping the needy, getting involved in the community, or any of a host of the topics and themes regularly heard in commencement addresses. I doubt that President Obama will use the opportunity of that speech to lay out a major policy proposal or to address a controversial issue (such as abortion); a commencement address is rarely the time or place for such a speech. And, with all of the issues presently facing both our nation and the world, it seems highly unlikely that President Obama would choose the issue of abortion to be the focus of a commencement address.

It is also critical to keep in mind that President Obama is not just some random person chosen to speak. Nor is he merely a well-known person of marginal import. No. He just happens to be the President of the United States of America. The very idea that any institution, let alone a premier academic institution, would turn down an opportunity to have the President of the United States speak is a bit hard to comprehend. President Obama was, in all likelihood, invited to speak at commencement because of his office, not because of his viewpoints, past endeavors, or the fact that he hails from nearby Chicago. The University extended an offer to the leader of our country; that the invitation was accepted should be viewed by the University community as an honor.

I'm also troubled, however, by the degree to which abortion (and, to a lesser extent, support for stem cell research) has been the focal point of the discussion. I understand that abortion is against Catholic teaching and that therefore, on that issue, President Obama's views conflict with those of Catholics (or at least Catholic teaching if not the actual views of many of America's Catholics). But I also understand that Catholic teaching opposes the death penalty; yet President Bush, an ardent supporter of the death penalty (and a frequent "enforcer" of the death penalty during his time as Governor of Texas) was invited to speak at Notre Dame (twice, I believe). I also understand Catholic teaching to oppose wars not fought for defensive purposes; yet President Bush sent the United States to war in Iraq on false pretenses. It is also worth noting that President Carter (pro-choice) spoke at a Notre Dame commencement ceremony, as did former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (who introduced the law that decriminalized abortion, homosexuality, and contraception in Cananda) and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan (who was instrumental in establishing the Global AIDS and Health Fund [now the The Global Fund] which, among other things, distributes millions of condoms in the Third World). So what it is about President Obama's support for reproductive rights that makes him different from all of these other speakers that the University of Notre Dame has welcomed?

And why, of all of the issues that President Obama has taken a stance on, is abortion so important as to be seen by some as disqualifying? Is abortion the absolute cornerstone issue of the Catholic faith, more so even than social justice? Is abortion the sole issue by which a person's "Catholic-ness" is to be measured and judged? Perhaps I'm mistaken, but it would seem to me that Catholics would, with the exception of issues relating to reproductive rights, have far more in common with those of President Obama than they did President Bush. I've already mentioned the death penalty, but what about torture, imprisonment without access to counsel or trial, and war? According to CNN, in the November 2008 elections, Catholics supported Mr. Obama 53% to Sen. McCain's 45% (don't forget that Sen. McCain was opposed to reproductive rights and his Vice Presidential candidate ... shudder ... I don't even want to go there).

One final point that I'd like to make. Yes, I understand that Notre Dame is a Catholic institution. But neither its student body nor faculty is homogeneous. In fact, a review of the University's website shows that the University's campus ministry includes services for Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, and other Christian denominations, as well as Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists. I find it hard to believe that students or faculty of these other faith traditions must be uniform in their beliefs, words, or deeds, in strict conformance to Catholic teaching; for that matter, I find it hard to believe that Notre Dame's Catholic students and faculty must be completely faithful to Catholic teaching either. And I find it hard to believe that every word articulated by every professor or speaker at Notre Dame must be in conformance with Catholic teaching (I wonder; do biology classes at Notre Dame teach evolution or creation...?).

Notre Dame is a highly respected academic institution. President Obama is the President of the United States of America. There is nothing that he has said or done that should disqualify him from speaking at Notre Dame's commencement and Notre Dame should be nothing but honored to have a sitting President accept the offer to speak at a commencement ceremony.

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