Our Lady of Political (and Pontifical) Nightmares

Officials at the University of Notre Dame have had a lot on their plates lately. What with the President of the United States speaking at their upcoming Commencement ceremonies and all!

Working in special events at a university, I know what kind of planning happens preceding a Commencement ceremony. We’ve even had to deal with the US Secret Service. We’ve not, however, had to deal with the fallout that has come as a result of Notre Dame’s choice of speakers.

As I understand it, US Presidents speaking at Notre Dame is a long-standing tradition. I’m pretty sure, however, that officials never anticipated the fallout that would occur from having a President speak who is so outspoken regarding his stance on abortion and stem cell research, two opinions on which the Roman Catholic Church is very clear.

No to both, thankyouverymuch.

Many in the Notre Dame community were very vocal with their opinions. Dis-invite the President, no matter how difficult it would be. Notre Dame is, after all, a Catholic institution.

Many other community members, as well as outsiders felt differently. Catholic or not, Barack Obama is the President of our country. And it’s not like he’s going to speak about those controversial topics.

Initially I felt that way. As an event planner, I felt I could separate my personal feelings from my professional. But the Diva Nana asked how I felt about the whole situation, and when I told her, she said she thought UND should never have invited Obama to speak, President or not.

“They’re a Catholic university. And they should uphold the Church’s stance.”

I made a few inconsequential comments and we moved on.

But the more I thought about it, the more I agreed with her. Is the University of Notre Dame a Catholic institution in total, or are they a “pick and choose” school? Will they stand by the Church and support the decisions of the Pope and Bishops, or will they adjust the encyclicals and statements to fit their own situations?

Will they choose Commencement speakers based on principle or based on who’s popular right now?

An added twist is that the recipient of this year’s Laetare Medal, Mary Ann Glendon, who was also scheduled to speak at Commencement, has now declined the award.

From her letter to Notre Dame President Rev. John Jenkins:

Last month, when you called to tell me that the commencement speech was to be given by President Obama, I mentioned to you that I would have to rewrite my speech. Over the ensuing weeks, the task that once seemed so delightful has been complicated by a number of factors.

First, as a longtime consultant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, I could not help but be dismayed by the news that Notre Dame also planned to award the president an honorary degree. This, as you must know, was in disregard of the U.S. bishops’ express request of 2004 that Catholic institutions “should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles” and that such persons “should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.” That request, which in no way seeks to control or interfere with an institution’s freedom to invite and engage in serious debate with whomever it wishes, seems to me so reasonable that I am at a loss to understand why a Catholic university should disrespect it.

Then I learned that “talking points” issued by Notre Dame in response to widespread criticism of its decision included two statements implying that my acceptance speech would somehow balance the event:

  • “President Obama won’t be doing all the talking. Mary Ann Glendon, the former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, will be speaking as the recipient of the Laetare Medal.”
  • “We think having the president come to Notre Dame, see our graduates, meet our leaders, and hear a talk from Mary Ann Glendon is a good thing for the president and for the causes we care about.”

A commencement, however, is supposed to be a joyous day for the graduates and their families. It is not the right place, nor is a brief acceptance speech the right vehicle, for engagement with the very serious problems raised by Notre Dame’s decision—in disregard of the settled position of the U.S. bishops—to honor a prominent and uncompromising opponent of the Church’s position on issues involving fundamental principles of justice.

Finally, with recent news reports that other Catholic schools are similarly choosing to disregard the bishops’ guidelines, I am concerned that Notre Dame’s example could have an unfortunate ripple effect.

Sounds like Notre Dame should have heeded the words of another US President, Thomas Jefferson:

In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.

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