Pro-Life Tempest Over Obama’s Notre Dame Speech

Cheer, cheer for Old Notre Dame,
Wake up the echoes cheering her name,
Send a volley cheer on high,
Shake down the thunder from the sky!
—“Notre Dame Victory March”

The band is playing and it is all happening on the gridiron. Where is Knute Rockne when we need him? Right-wing Catholics and their blogging companions have their knickers in a knot over the fact that President Barack Obama is scheduled to be the May 2009 commencement speaker at the University of Notre Dame. Given the virulent responses led by the Cardinal Newman Society, perhaps the Four Horsemen will have to come back to escort the president to the dais.

I tend to agree with The American Prospect’s Sarah Posner that the whole matter has been blown out of proportion by the press, who have been taken in by a small group that makes a lot of noise—usually to no avail. Notre Dame needs to act like the university it wants to be, not the glorified catechism classroom the conservatives want.

Presidents Eisenhower, Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Bush all spoke at Notre Dame while they were in office; President Kennedy was there for the winter commencement of 1950 while still a senator. So it is in keeping with tradition—and Notre Dame thrives on tradition—to have a sitting president at graduation.

Mr. Obama is struggling valiantly with the worst economic disaster in generations and wars on several fronts. Still, all that matters to his opponents is that he is pro-choice, open to scientific wisdom on stem-cell research, and has rolled back draconian public policy on international family planning funding. According to the Cardinal Newman crowd, he should not be permitted to speak to the graduates of a Catholic university, even if many of them are not Catholic, because he does not pass theological muster. That he supports anti-poverty programs, is pro-family, wants to bring about world peace, and works tirelessly to cultivate an ethos of respect for difference, all fades into obscurity when he fails the litmus test of orthodoxy on abortion. And the president is not even Catholic (Vice President Biden, take note).

The noise generated by the naysayers sounds like Saturday afternoon in the South Bend football stadium. There, under the watchful eye of “Touchdown Jesus,” the 134 foot mural of Jesus with his arms outstretched on the side of the Hesburgh Library just north of the end zone, Notre Dame fans scream their lungs out at opponents. Some of them are at it again in the press and in the blogosphere.

Petitions and counter-petitions are flying around. Navy and gold banner headlines adorn the site of those who are with the university, kelly green for those opposed. Protest is a new team sport and Notre Dame is, after all, a sports school. Suspense mounts—will University President John Jenkins, CSC, back down and disinvite the President of the United States? Or will he simply issue more press releases saying that the invitation “should not be taken as condoning or endorsing his positions on specific issues regarding the protection of human life, including abortion and embryonic cell research”? Will President Obama get a better offer? Or will one of his daughters have a school play that day? Will big donors pressure Notre Dame with dueling offers to do their bidding? We’ll see, but for now the uproar is telling. My advice would be to ignore the gnat-buzzing nuisances who traffic in these controversies because we have much larger issues to spend our moral and intellectual capital on these days.

Newman, Old Tactics

This is a classic example of making the proverbial mountain out of a molehill, a tactic well-known to Progressive Catholics. “Founded in 1993, The Cardinal Newman Society is dedicated to renewing and strengthening Catholic identity at America’s 224 Catholic colleges and universities.” Translation: this small group, founded by Patrick J. Reilly, monitors speakers, professors, students, and organizations on all the campuses and squeals every time its version of Catholic orthodoxy is transgressed. [Read Mark Jordan’s excellent column on Cardinal Newman’s ambiguous sexuality here —ed.]

Their Web site includes a handy listing of each institution with its sins and triumphs enumerated. For example, my alma mater, Marquette, is constantly called out for the mere presence of renowned moral theologian Daniel C. Maguire, then lauded for placing in the bottom ten of 139 schools studied with regard to the availability of contraceptives. Boston College is under scrutiny for hosting a talk on homosexuality and Christianity, then praised for tacking crucifixes back up in classrooms.

So it goes, year in and year out with the Newmanites stirring up little tempests on Catholic campuses. They win some, they lose most. One of their favorite targets is Eve Ensler’s popular play, The Vagina Monologues. They actually have a campaign to outlaw it from Catholic campuses, tracking their success by how few performances are held. They suggest alternatives to the play such as the rosary or a mass, choices I doubt resonate with most college-age students quite the way The Vagina Monologues does.

The Cardinal Newman Society generally irritates college administrations by blowing out of proportion issues (most having to do with sex—not war, the death penalty, immigration, or other social issues on which Catholic teachings are clear) about which good people disagree. A scuffle ensues. Faculty and staff often become more circumspect. When the semester is over, things cool down and the Newman folks move on to the next place and do it all over again.

The question is why Notre Dame took the bait instead of thanking them kindly for their views and getting on with the business of education, which includes dealing with people with whom one disagrees. Likewise, why does the big media accord these things such coverage? A quick look at the Newman group’s Web site with its sign-on petition ticking like a doomsday clock is enough to cast doubt on the veracity of its claims. So what if X number of people say to rescind the invitation? Last I heard, Holy Cross Father John Jenkins was hosting the party. Obviously, this is not simply about a graduation speaker. The President of the United States is being instrumentalized in a long Catholic theo-political struggle that will not be resolved on this playing field, though it is a chance for everyone to show which team they are on.

The local ordinary, Bishop John M. D’Arcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend, has announced that he will take a pass on the graduation ceremony. After attending for twenty-five years, he just cannot bring himself to sit through this one with pro-choice Mr. Obama receiving an honorary doctorate in law. The fact that Notre Dame is honoring former US Ambassador to the Vatican Mary Ann Glendon with their prestigious Laetare Medal is not enough to bring out Bishop D’Arcy. Mary Ann Glendon, a conservative legal scholar from Harvard Law School, led the Vatican’s delegation to the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, where she spearheaded opposition to family planning and abortion. She more than balances out President Obama on that score.

Not wanting to look soft on abortion, D’Arcy’s episcopal colleague, Bishop Gerald A. Gettelfinger of the Diocese of Evansville, Indiana, announced that he will not attend a local Right to Life dinner because Michael Steele, Committee Chair of the Republican National Committee, will speak. Mr. Steele let slip in a GQ interview that abortion is “an individual choice,” despite his party’s anti-abortion plank (though he later “clarified” that remark). Anti-choice Governor Sarah Palin is expected at the event, but apparently her presence, a tried and true anti-abortion politician, was not enough to entice Bishop Gettelfinger either. It appears that some Indiana bishops will not even be seen in the presence of pro-choice people, or publicly anti-choice people who might harbor a doubt or two in a hard case. I don’t even want to think about what it means that two white bishops are dissing two African American leading men in politics.

Every president gets a boatload of invitations at commencement season. I suspect that Mr. Obama chose the University of Notre Dame (he will also speak at Arizona State University and the US Naval Academy) because of its visibility as a Catholic institution in order to thank the majority of Catholics who helped him win the election. Crass but clear.

I would have suggested a place like Trinity University in Washington DC, founded in 1897 by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. That small but stalwart school is proud of its accomplished pro-choice alumnae, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius. The governor awaits confirmation as Secretary of Health and Human Services over the yelping of anti-choice Catholics. Trinity was a predominately white, upper middle class college when my mother suggested I consider it. Now, more than 85% of its students are African American or Hispanic, many of whom are the first in their families to go to college. Trinity, without the ethos or endowment of Notre Dame, embodies Catholic commitment to excellence and inclusivity. Maybe next year the president will just stroll up North Capitol Street and get his honorary degree from the Trinity women.

But this year he has to “win one for The Gipper.” I only hope that Notre Dame people of many opinions will recognize that democracy is not a game and education is not a football—even as the band plays on.

What though the odds be great or small,
Old Notre Dame will win over all,
While her loyal ones are marching
Onward to victory!

—“Notre Dame Victory March”