The Unsung Speech at Notre Dame, A Postmortem

President Barack Obama spoke persuasively at the 2009 University of Notre Dame commencement, pulling off a graceful if somewhat jocular address befitting the sports-school ambiance. The president cushioned his pro-choice position with a crowd-pleasing homage to Notre Dame’s legendary president, Theodore M. Hesburgh, CSC, a.k.a “Father Ted.” He hitched his wagon to the star of the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, champion of the “seamless garment” approach that connects ending abortion with the eradication of poverty, war, and the death penalty (among other issues), despite the fact the most women’s clothes have plenty of seams.

The result was an historic if predictable speech that reprised the president’s views, confirmed that not all Catholics are moral Neanderthals, and showcased the university as the flagship Catholic school it wants to be.

The more fascinating speech of the day belonged to Judge John T. Noonan Jr. You had to be there or be watching Notre Dame’s live feed to hear his address, but it provided valuable clues to where the controversial issue of abortion stands in Catholic circles. A little background is in order.

Notre Dame gives the Laetare Medal (almost) every year at commencement to “men and women whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the Church, and enriched the heritage of humanity.” The medal is the American version of the papal “Golden Rose,” awarded since the Middle Ages. FYI, “Laetare” means “rejoice” and refers to the fourth Sunday (Rose Sunday) of Lent when Catholics are reminded that their sacrifices are well worth what awaits them. The medal winner is named on this day, presumably to add to the rejoicing.

A look at Notre Dame’s recipients from the award’s inception in 1883 to this year’s selection who no-showed, Mary Ann Glendon, includes politicians and military leaders, social justice stars and artists. Among the chosen are President John F. Kennedy, activists Dorothy Day and Sr. Helen Prejean, educator Sr. Ann Ida Gannon, Senator Mike Mansfield, actress Helen Hayes, the aforementioned Bernardin, jazz musician Dave Brubeck, actor Martin Sheen, Justice William J. Brennan, and business mogul J. Peter Grace, to name just a few.

There is no obvious connection among the winners except that they are Catholics. Like every such award, I suspect that the choice of medal recipients says as much about those who hold sway at Notre Dame as it does about the recipients themselves. Controversy over the choice is not uncommon. In 1992, John Cardinal O’Connor of New York City protested the selection of pro-choice Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. He was politely assured that the award was not a step toward sainthood and that was the end of that.

This year, Ms. Glendon, Harvard Law School conservative and former United States Ambassador to the Holy See, initially accepted the award. But as the controversy over President Obama swirled, she claimed she did not want to be trotted out as the anti-Obama, so she declined the honor. It appeared that she was following the dictates of Rome, not willing to sully her reputation by being caught in the same arena as Mr. Obama.

In her stead, the Notre Dame administration drafted Laetare Medalist (1984) Judge John T. Noonan Jr., Senior Circuit Judge on the US Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit, to give the annual address. He alluded to Ms. Glendon but did not even mention her name, proving that half the battle is showing up; or in her case, not.

I suspect that Judge Noonan was considered a safe bet to balance the pro-choice president: an eminence gris whose conservative Catholic bona fides are polished by his claim that a fetus is essentially a person from the time of conception. Regardless of his intentions, anti-choice people must have been deeply disappointed that he did not take one for the team. Despite his valiant if ineffective effort to link anti-abortion efforts with the freeing of slaves, the gist of his message was an unsatisfying if honest resort to mystery when reason fails.

He explained the nature of conscience (no one can coerce anyone else, unless of course you are the Vatican and pretend to coerce everyone), called the president a person of conscience, and urged graduates to join the community of conversation that is a democracy. He counseled prayer and love for one’s opponents, and exclaimed that “truth will win out.” It was hardly the stuff of a moral or legal blueprint for those who seek to undo women’s legal rights; more a philosophical sermon that left the impression that the issue is pretty well settled.

Indeed I think it is. Abortion is legal, as per the Supreme Court decision that Judge Noonan oddly described as “stillborn.” Ouch. But anti-choicers might have hoped in vain for more than a pat on the head and a prayer. Judge Noonan did not claim the moral high ground, reasoning correctly that abortion is not a simple case of fetal everything, but involves women, medical matters, and the proper exercise of governmental power. Instead, he concluded, “We can work together, serenely secure in that trust that the truth will out.”

His ending leaves lots of room for interpretation. But one plausible feminist take is that even Judge Noonan has come to realize that we can and should live with legal abortion, without forcing anyone to have one or perform one against their well-informed conscience.

Fade to gray on Commencement 2009 at Notre Dame.