A presidential speech at a commencement confers a substantial amount of prestige onto a university, at least under normal circumstances. This Sunday, though, Notre Dame students believe the university will damage its prestige and its mission as a Catholic university by honoring President Barack Obama with a doctorate in his appearance. They have mobilized to protest the award and the invitation, and in the process the students and faculty may be teaching Notre Dame instead of the other way around:
In defense of the unborn, we wish to express our deepest opposition to Reverend John I. Jenkins, C.S.C.’s invitation of President Barack Obama to be the University of Notre Dame’s principal commencement speaker and the recipient of an honorary degree. Our objection is not a matter of political partisanship, but of President Obama’s hostility to the Catholic Church’s teachings on the sanctity of human life at its earliest stages. Further, the University’s decision runs counter to the policy of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops against honoring pro-choice politicians. We cannot sit by idly while the University honors someone who believes that an entire class of human beings is undeserving of the most basic of all legal rights, the right to live.
Additionally, Fr. Jenkins has put some of his students into a position of moral dilemma as to whether they should attend their own graduation. Many pro-life seniors, along with their families, now feel personally conflicted about participating in the commencement. The lack of concern for these devoted sons and daughters of Notre Dame, who love this University and the Catholic principles on which it was built, is shameful.
As a Catholic, I’m less concerned about the invitation to speak at the campus. Universities exist to debate issues great and trivial, and opposing points of view should be welcomed, but also challenged. Obama’s commencement speech will probably not touch on abortion and the sanctity of life, especially after this controversy, but if it does, the university will have no structure in place to challenge Obama’s rhetoric on the subject.
The honoring of Obama with a doctorate is what gives Catholics offense. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops had just warned about honoring politicians who support abortion as antithetical to the church’s core value of the sanctity of life. It trades a momentary boost in prestige against serious damage to that core mission, on which most of the social-justice efforts of the church rely after all, if human life has no sanctity, then why bother with the poor and hungry? Honoring Obama after his life’s record of opposing even the most broadly-supported restrictions on abortion, such as the Born Alive Infant Protection Act’s Illinois equivalent, is shameful indeed.
I’ll be traveling on Sunday and will probably miss the Notre Dame protest, but from the looks of this video, the activists have the resources and skills to gain national attention. It could be a tremendous teaching moment if ND Response can pull it together.