Obama at Notre Dame: A Chance to Talk to Catholics

On Sunday, Barack Obama will finally give the commencement address at the University of Notre Dame, putting an end to nearly two months of culture-warring: both the full-throated battle waged by conservative Catholics and the season of cringing endured by their progressive counterparts. Once Obama leaves the golden dome behind, the Catholic League (i.e. Bill Donohue and a letterhead) will be free to focus on the crucial matter of the latest Dan “Da Vinci Code” Brown adaptation.

As of this writing, we are still waiting for advance word on the subject of Obama’s graduation speech. As any professor can tell you, a college commencement address frequently falls into one of three genres.

The first strives to inspire with insipid platitudes equal to the occasion. (“Your graduation is a change I can believe in.”) The second ignores the moment to focus on the agenda of the speaker. (“I will now outline my five main principals for reforming the finance industry.”) And the third tries to deflate the occasion with humor. (“The only numbers higher than my deficits are on your tuition bills.”) All three approaches are equally terrible.

(The occasional gem, like the late David Foster Wallace’s speech at Kenyon College, in print as This is Water, comes along once in a decade, if that).

But the controversy that surrounds Obama’s Notre Dame address gives him a unique opportunity to address both the specific ceremony at hand and the historic context in which he presides. Instead of focusing on the role of service in American life—as some have suggested he will do—or the separation of church and state—as some progressives hope he will do—he might use his Notre Dame podium-cum-pulpit to address an audience both near and wide: American Catholics.

American Catholics, if the polls are right, have not been a problem for Obama on the political front, at least not yet. Fifty-four percent of them voted for him in November; 45 percent of mass-going Catholics did. But ever since Ronald Reagan swiped it from the Democrats, the Catholic vote has become a kind of bellwether for the nation’s political will. If it starts to bulge to one side or another, the center of gravity seems to follow suit. So Obama may not need the votes for an election, but he needs the political will to govern.

What Obama can do in the shadow of Touchdown Jesus is to speak forthrightly and honestly about the issues that divide Catholics—including abortion—as well as the values that should bring American Catholics into the fold of the Obama agenda. There are ways, in fact, that Catholics are a natural Obama constituency. More than most Americans, Catholics trust in institutions and their role in cultivating social welfare. They believe that robust, structured institutions are necessary for civil society, are less likely to share the radical skepticism of the Tea Party crowd. To be a good Catholic is to trust in a leadership that isn’t always transparent, which is also what it takes to trust in government.

Obama might remind American Catholics of the long history of their own institutional investments. It is no accident that two kinds of extra-liturgical institutions that have been central to Catholic life in the United States, schools and hospitals, mirror planks of the President’s platform. Obama wants to improve education and healthcare, and he believes that all Americans should share both the benefits and the responsibility. Catholics can support that call to action.

But Obama’s connection to Catholics goes beyond policy. What he shares with Catholicism is a love of ritual, a pleasure in form and its repetition. You can hear that in his speeches. We have not had another leader in my lifetime who seemed to enjoy the routine of daily oratory in the way that Obama does. You could see Obama’s appreciation for ceremony on the day of his inauguration, or when he addressed the joint session of Congress, or even when he stepped out to meet reporters with the White House dog. The smiles, the handshakes, the gestures—these are all real for this President; they come from a deep well-spring of sincerity, a kind of faith in the liturgy of politics. If they are watching carefully, Catholics will recognize this kernel in Obama. It is what they hope to see their priests each Sunday at Mass, or in themselves every time they enter the confession booth. Obama may not be one of them, but he moves in a Catholic idiom, and he can urge American Catholics to join him in rebuilding the country.

If the speaker and the audience can recognize themselves in each other at the Notre Dame commencement, then the speech may even have been worth all the cringing.