Friday, March 27, 2009

Beneath the Dome, the Storm Continues

A week after the White House and Notre Dame announced President Obama's selection as the latter's commencement speaker, the firestorm of reaction just keeps plugging along.

With the petition protesting the choice now pushing 200,000 signatures, three bishops have now publicly panned the President's pilgrimage to South Bend; after the local ordinary, Bishop John D'Arcy, announced his boycott of the 17 May commencement on Tuesday, yesterday Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix released what had been a private note to the university president, Holy Cross Father John Jenkins.

The Phoenix prelate's original e.mail had "Saddened by your tragic decision" as its subject line; fulltext below (emphases original):
Dear Fr. Jenkins,

I am saddened and heavy of heart about your decision to invite President Obama to speak at Notre Dame University and even to receive an honorary degree.

It is a public act of disobedience to the Bishops of the United States. Our USCCB June 2004 Statement “Catholics in Political Life” states: “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.” No one could not know of the public stands and actions of the president on key issues opposed to the most vulnerable human beings.

John Paul II said, “Above, all the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights — for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture — is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with the maximum determination.”

I pray that you come to see the grave mistake of your decision, and the way that it undercuts the Church’s proclamation of the Gospel of Life in our day.
Olmsted is just one of several US bishops understood to have quietly communicated their dissatisfaction to Jenkins over recent days.

And this morning, Bishop Gregory Aymond of Austin released a statement of his own in the diocese's weekly bulletin:
As was announced recently, the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., is presenting President Barack Obama with an honorary degree and have asked him to give the commencement address.

I, along with many other Catholics, express great disappointment and sadness that a Catholic university would honor someone who is pro-choice and who holds many values contrary to our Catholic belief.

In the midst of such a sad situation, as Catholics we must continue to be pro-life and to proclaim with even greater strength the values of Christ and the teachings of the Catholic Church.

In my opinion, it is very clear that in this case the University of Notre Dame does not live up to its Catholic identity in giving this award and their leadership needs our prayerful support.
Meanwhile, reaction is running split among the university's core constituencies of students and alums....

Bob Reish, the student body president and a graduating senior, said there is a "general excitement" about Obama's visit, although he is aware there are people on both sides of the issue.

As of 2 p.m. Thursday, The Observer, the student newspaper, had received 612 letters about Obama's appearance — 313 from alumni and 299 from current students.

Seventy percent of the alumni letters opposed having Obama giving the speech, while 73 percent of student letters supported his appearance. Among the 95 seniors who wrote letters, 97 percent supported the president's invitation.

A university spokesman reiterated to the wire that South Bend has no plans to rescind the invitation.

SVILUPPO: Speaking of the reaction received by the university's student-run paper, the Observer ran the following lead editorial in today's edition:

The Observer's inbox has been inundated with letters in response to the University's invitation to the President of the United States to be the principal speaker at this year's Commencement exercises.

These letters range from expressions of utter outrage and disbelief to mild acceptance, from sheer joy to indifference. Their authors - angered alumni, American Catholics not associated with the University and students - are contributing their viewpoints to a conversation that has - in many respects - reduced itself to a circus.

Of the 612 Letters to the Editor The Observer has received as of 2 p.m. Thursday, 313 have been authored by alumni. Of those letters, 30 percent are supportive of the University's decision to invite the president and 70 percent are against.

And while more alumni have written to The Observer than students, their voice must not be lost. In fact, of the 282 letters authored by students, the breakdown is a bit different: 73 percent of students who have written Letters to the Editor are supportive of the Obama selection, while 27 percent are against it.

Looking at the senior class' response, the sentiment is even more extreme: 97 percent of seniors are supportive, 3 percent are not.

There is a clear disconnect between alumni and the student body as a whole on this issue.

This is the seniors' graduation, their last memories of Notre Dame as a student. Protestors would do well to remember this. Make your views known; healthy debate is welcomed. Photographs of aborted fetuses are not.

The fact remains: President Barack Obama will be the 2009 Commencement speaker at the University of Notre Dame, following a long-standing tradition to invite the president to speak.

University President Fr. John Jenkins has described the president's decision to come to Notre Dame as an "honor;" likewise, the White House released a statement that Obama is equally "honored" to come to campus and address the graduating class. Neither groups have indicated that plans will change.

Yet the debate rages on, and with legitimate reason. According to official University statements, the invitation of the president is not an endorsement of his views pertaining to the protection of life.

However, the question arises: Is it possible to pick and choose what to honor?

There is no such thing as a perfect speaker; all are controversial on some level, regardless of their affiliation to political party or to religion. Take, for example, President George W. Bush, the last sitting president to speak at a University Commencement. A member of the Republican Party, his stance on the death penalty sparked protests in May 2001 when he was on campus.

As it was in 2001, it remains in 2009: there is a difference between tolerance and acceptance.

The University has said it does not accept the president's views on the protection of life, but it will listen to him, it will respect him, and it will challenge him in the future.

In doing so, the Notre Dame community is in a unique position to have the ear of the president for one afternoon.

University President Emeritus Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, without a doubt one of the most influential American Catholics, a man who has fought tirelessly for civil rights in this country and to transform the University into a respected institution of higher learning, said this Friday speaking to a group of alumni, parents and friends of Notre Dame:

"No speaker who has ever come to Notre Dame has changed the University. We are who we are. But, quite often, the very fact of being here has changed the speaker."

We must continue that tradition, and show the president, and the world, what Notre Dame is; we will welcome challenges, but retain our character and retain our class in engaging with those who might disagree with us in debate. And we will give the class of 2009 the best possible send off to bring Notre Dame with them when they leave campus in May.