Notre Dame and the Obama controversy

You may have heard there is a petition circulating to protest Notre Dame’s decision to invite Pres. Obama as its commencement speaker.  The bishop for the diocese in which Notre Dame is located, the Most Rev. John M. D’Arcy, will skip the ceremony and has written a letter of protest.  A number of other Catholic leaders have reached the same decision.  These dissidents cite Obama’s opinions on abortion and marriage and claim they are a violation of a 2004 United States Conference of Catholic Bishops statement that included the following text which is at the heart of the controversy:

“The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.”

The invitation as commencement speaker is the “honor” they protest and the “defiance of…fundamental principles”, as described in a letter by the Most Rev. Daniel M. Buechlein, Archbishop of Indianapolis:

“There isn’t a single reason that would justify Catholic sponsorship of the president of our country, who is blatantly opposed to the Catholic Church’s doctrine on abortion and embryonic stem-cell research. You dishonor the reputation of the University of Notre Dame and, in effect, abdicate your prestigious reputation among Catholic universities everywhere.”

The president of the University, Father Jenkins, responded that the statement did not apply to this matter because the document was understood to refer only to Catholics in political life; Obama is not Catholic.  Of course, this suggests a fundamental disagreement over the nature of the USCCB statement.

There is a similar controvery brewing over at Xavier Univeristy, where Democratic strategist Donna Brazile has been invited at attend commencement.  New Orleans Archbishop Alfred Clifton Hughes says of her invitation:

“I recognize that Ms. Brazile is a Catholic Louisiana native who has worked effectively in service to the poor and African Americans in particular. However, her public statements on the abortion issue are not in keeping with Catholic moral teaching.”

A couple of problems I have with all of this:

1. As the Inside Higher Ed article points out, there have been many individuals honored by Catholic universities whose personal and political beliefs do not accord with the tenets of Catholic belief.  Among them is George W. Bush, whose (rabid) support of the death penalty stands in defiance of Catholic dogma, yet he was a commencement speaker at Notre Dame in 2001.

2. The Cardinal Newman Society, which fashions itself as a “watchdog” organization lobbying Catholic Universities on a number of issues, seems to be the agitator rallying this year’s opposition.  It does not take a genius to figure out they are doing so not because of Obama (et al’s) differing opinions from (some) Catholics, but because of their reasoned, progressive stance across a number of issues.  The idea that a group such as this could pose a challenge to the freedoms accorded in our nation’s institutions of higher learning sickens me.

3. Many of those who would oppose Obama’s commencement speech also support the (Horowitz inspired) movement to leaven academic disciplines and departments with more “diversity”.  This takes the form, many times, of pseudoscience (hello! intelligent design) and violations of law (as when faculty are hired for their (conservative) political beliefs, and not the excellence of their scholarship or teaching). Again, with friends like this….

4. The Church is facing a crisis in both the laity and priesthood.  Over the last decade, most estimates show a precipitous decline in the number of priests (down about 22% in the U.S.) and the number of believers attending services, at least once a week (down to about 33% in 2005).  Controversies such as this one may produce a small bump in church attendance (who doesn’t like a good witch burning?), but it won’t fix the structural problem.  Finding ways to connect with the real lives people live, and the real challenges they face is key to this–a lesson I thought the church learned in the mid-1960s.  Many of those who need the church–who have, since its early days been drawn to it–the poor, the infirm, prostitutes, wanderers, etc. don’t need lectures on the evils of abortion so much as they need hope, and community, and charity (imho).

5. The Church–at least the leaders featured in this debacle–continue to view ideas as dangerous things, from which they should protect regular folks.  This patronizing, idiotic approach to knowledge stands in defiance of a reasonable person’s interpretation of the value of religion in life.  In my view, religion (or faith, or Humanism, etc.) should embolden us to think expansively, bravely, and freely.

In closing, and since my father is an academic officer at a Catholic college, I will emphasize that these problems are my own.

Update: The next item in the inbox announced that Providence College has denied Tom Tancredo the opportunity to speak on campus.  The reasons stated were two: first, the request arrived “too late” and second, Tancredo’s beliefs conflicted with those of the Catholic Church.  (He will speak off campus.) Of the first reason, I have nothing to say.  Unfortunately, and in keeping with my argument, I must say that it is unfortunate the College decided to refuse his speaking engagement for the second reason.  Any reasonable person will hear his hate speech and reject it.  It cannot be confused with Catholic belief.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Notre Dame and the Obama controversy

  1. i disagree with point 4 as an empirical matter to explain the “crisis in both the laity and the priesthood.” if you look at protestants it’s pretty easy to see that the mainline churches are the ones with the empty pews whereas evangelicals tend to be thriving. the take home would seem to be that when most people feel like talking to God they want to hear something that reaffirms traditional morality, otherwise, why bother? (again, i’m approaching this as an empirical question about what drives church attendance, not a theological or moral question about what churches ought to preach)

    admittedly it’s a good idea to be humble about drawing inferences about conservative Protestants being comparable to conservative Catholics since:
    * Catholicism is often inter-twined with ethnic identity in a way that evangelicalism is not, but many mainline denominations (eg Lutherans) are
    * Catholics are high church and evangelicals low church
    * Evangelicals are prolifically schismatic to the point that denomination is often not a very meaningful concept whereas Catholics have a tradition of trying to accommodate varying perspectives while avoiding formal schism (i.e. there are Jesuits, Franciscans, etc but they are all Catholic).

    btw, as to why there’s a Catholic vocation crisis, i have two words, “Baumol’s disease.” my father-in-law likes to say that when they pray for vocations he hopes they’re not praying for another potato famine in Ireland but that would certainly do the trick. it’s no accident that after centuries of exporting priests Ireland became a mission territory once it got rich in the 1990s, or that the third person of the trinity seems to be especially active in Nigeria.

  2. Jenn Lena

    A commenter named Richard just paid the asshole tax. Poor Richard.

  3. proxifying

    I don’t know Ms. Jenn. Something just doesn’t sound…right about that. I’d much prefer “Dick Tax,” but I guess that that, too, would open one to charges of homonormativity.

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