Wednesday, May 13, 2009

'09: No Commencement... '01: "No Regrets"

Four days before Notre Dame hosts President Obama as its commencement speaker and an honorary degree recipient, the Domer-in-Chief -- Holy Cross Father John Jenkins -- addressed the continuing controversy surrounding the choice in a letter to the university's graduating class that leaked earlier today.


The decision to invite President Obama to Notre Dame to receive an honorary degree and deliver the Commencement address has triggered debate. In many cases, the debate has grown heated, even between people who agree completely on Church teaching regarding the sanctity of human life, who agree completely that we should work for change – and differ only on how we should work for change.

Yet, there has been an extra dimension to your debate. You have discussed this issue with each other while being observed, interviewed, and evaluated by people who are interested in this story. You engaged each other with passion, intelligence and respect. And I saw no sign that your differences led to division. You inspire me. We need the wider society to be more like you; it is good that we are sending you into that world on Sunday.

I am saddened that many friends of Notre Dame have suggested that our invitation to President Obama indicates ambiguity in our position on matters of Catholic teaching. The University and I are unequivocally committed to the sanctity of human life and to its protection from conception to natural death.

Notre Dame has a long custom of conferring honorary degrees on the President of the United States. It has never been a political statement or an endorsement of policy. It is the University’s expression of respect for the leader of the nation and the Office of the President. In the Catholic tradition, our first allegiance is to God in Christ, yet we are called to respect, participate in, and contribute to the wider society. As St. Peter wrote (I Pt. 2:17), we should honor the leader who upholds the secular order.

At the same time, and born of the same duty, a Catholic university has a special obligation not just to honor the leader but to engage the culture. Carrying out this role of the Catholic university has never been easy or without controversy. When I was an undergraduate at Notre Dame, Fr. Hesburgh spoke of the Catholic university as being both a lighthouse and a crossroads. As a lighthouse, we strive to stand apart and be different, illuminating issues with the moral and spiritual wisdom of the Catholic tradition. Yet, we must also be a crossroads through which pass people of many different perspectives, backgrounds, faiths, and cultures. At this crossroads, we must be a place where people of good will are received with charity, are able to speak, be heard, and engage in responsible and reasoned dialogue.

The President’s visit to Notre Dame can help lead to broader engagement on issues of importance to the country and of deep significance to Catholics. Ultimately, I hope that the conversations and the good will that come from this day will contribute to closer relations between Catholics and public officials who make decisions on matters of human life and human dignity.

There is much to admire and celebrate in the life and work of President Obama. His views and policies on immigration, expanding health care, alleviating poverty, and building peace through diplomacy have a deep resonance with Catholic social teaching. As the first African-American holder of this office, he has accelerated our country’s progress in overcoming the painful legacy of slavery and segregation. He is a remarkable figure in American history, and I look forward to welcoming him to Notre Dame.

Though the majority of Sunday's 1,800 graduates are said to be enthusiastic at hearing from Obama, who reportedly received 57% of the South Bend campus' vote last November, a group of some 20 to 50 degree candidates are expected to follow the lead of the local ordinary, Bishop John D'Arcy, in boycotting the ceremonies to hold a prayer vigil of protest instead.

Even so, D'Arcy will be on campus for both commencement eve's Baccalaureate Mass and to lead a candlelight vigil afterward to pray for an end to abortion and embryonic stem-cell research.

In a local TV interview earlier this week, the bishop held his ground:

Currently 21 months past the retirement age of 75, a successor to the Fort Wayne-South Bend prelate, who's served in the post since 1985, could arrive by summer's end. Given the Vatican's absence from the fray over the Obama invite since it was announced in mid-March, the best indicator of the Holy See's response to the controversy will likely be gleanable in the person and leanings of D'Arcy's successor.

Meanwhile, Dometown's paper of record used the moment to track down the solitary predecessor of this year's sound and fury -- the 2001 master's recipient who turned his back to the dais, knelt and prayed the Rosary as then-President Bush addressed Notre Dame's exiting class.

Now a Maryknoll missionary in Bolivia, Daniel Moriarity said he "never regretted" his protest of the 43rd president's stances on issues including "the death penalty and labor to the environment and nuclear proliferation," all of which, he said, conflicted with Catholic social teaching.

While Moriarity admitted that he voted for Obama and called the president "less objectionable" than his predecessor, he said that Notre Dame's leadership "need[s] to move beyond presidents as the highest point of prestige" in choosing its commencement speakers.

PHOTO: University of Notre Dame