What was probably seen as a coup for the University of Notre Dame's administration when they landed President Barack Obama as its 2009 spring commencement speaker, has now turned into a public relations gaffe. Principles of academic and intellectual freedom espoused by the university have clashed with moral principles advocated by the Catholic Church.
On March 20, the university announced that President Barack Obama would be commencement speaker at its May 17 spring graduation. He is also scheduled to receive an honorary doctor of laws degree.
Within hours, Holy Cross Fr. John Jenkins, president of Notre Dame, began receiving phone calls and e-mails opposing the selection. Opposition to Obama's appearance and reception of an honorary degree surrounded the president's support of abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research, both of which are counter to the church's position.
Among those to first condemn the Obama invitation was Bishop John M. D'Arcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., the diocese in which Notre Dame is located. Bishop D'Arcy said the invitation "scandalized many Catholics and other people of good will." A regular at Notre Dame's commencements for the past two decades, Bishop D'Arcy announced he would boycott this year's ceremony.
Many other U.S. bishops - including our own Bishop David Ricken - have publicly condemned Obama's selection as speaker and honorary degree recipient. They have stated that their 2004 document, "Catholics in Political Life," prohibits Catholic institutions from honoring political leaders who support abortion.
"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," states the document.
In the face of growing opposition, however, the university defended its choice of Obama as commencement speaker. Fr. Jenkins stated that inviting the president to speak "should not be taken as condoning or endorsing his positions on specific issues regarding the protection of human life, including abortion and embryonic stem-cell research."
During its commencement, Notre Dame also bestows its Laetare Medal on a deserving Catholic. This year's medal recipient was to be Mary Ann Glendon, former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. However, last Monday, Glendon, sent a letter to Fr. Jenkins announcing that she was declining the medal. She said that presenting Obama with an honorary degree disregarded the bishops' 2004 document.
Glendon's decision leaves Notre Dame scrambling to find a new award recipient. Given the negative publicity associated with Obama's appearance, finding a replacement may be difficult.
Notre Dame has long maintained that institutions of higher learning have a responsibility to explore ideas and engage in discussion. When it comes to Catholic universities, the added burden of balancing religious identity and academic mission makes this task more challenging. According to U.S. church leaders, Notre Dame was not up to the challenge this time.
This current episode has tarnished the image of Our Lady's university and has caused division among the faithful. Perhaps the fairest outcome would be for President Obama to humbly bow out of the commencement engagement. He must know how this episode has caused scandal among so many people of good will, and by simply backing out of this appearance, he could save the university from further criticism and public protests on campus.
Dialogue on civic and religious issues should not end at Notre Dame, however. A more appropriate venue for the president's visit to Notre Dame might be found, one in which discussion of politics, religion and contemporary issues could be expressed - without the implied suggestion of support for his political views.
The opportunity to allow one of the world's most powerful political leaders on a Catholic university campus should not end with this fiasco. Let's hope that the university, in consultation with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, can settle on rules of engagement with our political leaders.