Eight years ago, Notre Dame invited newly elected president Barack Obama to speak at their commencement, an invitation that turned into a political controversy. This year, the university has extended its commencement invitation to Vice President Mike Pence rather than Obama’s successor Donald Trump. Is this a choice to honor a favorite son, or a snub of a president over political positions? The Washington Post’s Tom Davies frames it as the latter:
Vice President Mike Pence will deliver the commencement address this spring at the University of Notre Dame, the school announced Thursday, an honor customarily reserved for newly elected U.S. presidents.
Notre Dame’s president, the Rev John Jenkins, had criticized President Donald Trump over his executive order limiting travel and refugees from some Muslim-majority countries, saying it would “demean our nation.” In a December statement, Jenkins said he was considering whether to extend a speaking invitation to Trump but didn’t “want the surrounding controversy to distract from the central purpose of commencement.”
Notre Dame spokesman Paul Browne declined to say whether Trump was invited to the May 21 ceremony or might be asked to visit the South Bend, Indiana, campus in the future. Browne said he expects Pence will be “warmly welcomed.”
America Magazine’s Michael O’Loughlin reports that it could be a bit of both:
“It is fitting that in the 175th year of our founding on Indiana soil that Notre Dame recognize a native son who served our state and now the nation with quiet earnestness, moral conviction and a dedication to the common good characteristic of true statesmen,” Father Jenkins said in a statement.
“With his own brand of reserved dignity, Mike Pence instilled confidence on the state level then, and on the world stage now,” he continued. “We are proud to welcome him to represent the new administration.”
O’Loughlin recalls the dispute that erupted with Obama’s invitation, and notes that Jenkins said that might incline him to look for someone less controversial:
“I do think the elected leader of the nation should be listened to. And it would be good to have that person on the campus—whoever they are, whatever their views,” Father Jenkins told Notre Dame’s student newspaper last year. “At the same time, the 2009 Commencement was a bit of a political circus, and I think I’m conscious that that day is for graduates and their parents—and I don’t want to make the focus something else.”
Earlier this year, Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput said that Mr. Trump should be invited to speak at the university during commencement, though he stopped short of saying the president should be given an honorary degree.
The honorary degree was the real crux of the controversy in 2009, a point most people have forgotten. While some opposed Obama’s invitation at all, others noted the need to keep the doors open to debate. The granting of a degree from a Catholic institution, even an honorary degree, to someone who publicly opposed the core teaching of all life as sacramental from conception to natural death offended those who had worked to support the church’s teachings.
Eight years ago this month, I focused on that as the key issue:
The speaking gig could be rationalized as keeping with an open debate policy. The university will also have Mary Ann Glendon speak at the same commencement. Langdon served as US Ambassador to the Vatican and who just received the Laetare Award from Notre Dame for her tireless effort on pro-life causes. The commencement could serve as a teaching moment, although it’s probably more accurate to say that it will send a very mixed message from the university about its view of the Catholic mission in public life.
Notre Dame has no ground on which to stand over the award of the honorary degree, however. Barack Obama used his influence in law to pursue a path that allowed the maximum latitude in destroying innocent life, which is anathema to the Catholic Church and should be to Notre Dame as a part of it. Giving him an award in recognition of his service to the law honors actions like blocking the Illinois Born Alive Protection Act on multiple occasions, which allowed abortion clinics to continue their practice of infanticide. How can a part of the Catholic Church honor that?
The solution to Fr. Jenkins’ issue is simple: Invite the president, and keep the honorary degree out of it. That might not be enough to avoid the “political circus,” as Fr. Jenkins puts it, but if that’s the overriding concern, then Fr. Jenkins is giving authority for a heckler’s veto, which is a dangerous precedent to set. Furthermore, while issues on immigration policy and Trump’s tone have attracted a significant amount of criticism from Catholic bishops, priests, and laity, those fall more within the realm of prudential judgment than Obama’s support for abortion did, and still does. Either Notre Dame should invite all presidents in their first year, or dispense with the tradition entirely and explicitly. Fr. Jenkins does neither in this case, which perpetuates the ambiguity.
The university may or may not end up with the same political circus with Pence. The more zealous opponents of the Trump administration have taken to protesting everything, and it’s not as if they like Mike Pence much better anyway. Perhaps the fever in the fever swamps will have sufficiently abated so that Pence can speak without too much distraction, but at least for now there have been no indications that rationality has returned to their discourse. That’s the problem with heckler’s vetoes; one success breeds more contempt and more attempts to impose them.
Still, Notre Dame students and their families will have a unique opportunity to hear one of the best of Republican orators address them at 2017’s commencement. Pence will understand that the nature of this speech is less political than it is aspirational, and it should be memorable. Let’s hope that the rabid protests allow the audience to actually hear what he has to say — and that the protesters take the opportunity to listen as well.