President Obama at the University of Notre Dame. Photographer Pete Souza via Wikimedia Commons

What We Hold Most Dear

When the University of Notre Dame invited President Obama to speak at its Commencement ceremony and receive an honorary degree in law, many Catholics protested. The CL Community at the school, led by Paolo Carozza, Professor of Law, decided to act.
Santiago Ramos

Graduation season at colleges and universities everywhere is punctuated by the Commencement Addresses preceding every diploma delivery, the highlight of this annual launching into the world of a school’s graduates. The invited speaker always shares his thoughts and experiences on the meaning of life and his hopes for the future, sending the students off with something to live by.

It should come as no surprise, then, that controversy ensued when the University of Notre Dame, America’s hallmark Catholic university, invited President Barack Obama to be its Commencement speaker on May 17th. Significantly, the invitation came with the promise of an honorary legal degree, bestowed by the university. Fr. John Jenkins, President of Notre Dame, was challenged by many contrary voices.

Many Catholics, and almost 70 of their bishops, objected to Obama’s invitation and especially to the promised honorary legal degree, on these grounds: how could a Catholic institution invite a president whose positions directly oppose the Church on abortion, embryonic stem cell research, and other bioethical issues that the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops had declared to be of paramount importance to American society? Moreover, the first few months of Obama’s presidency have seen the delivery of executive orders that go against the pro-life, anti-embryonic stem cell research movement. A previous document from the bishops, “Catholics in Political Life,” stated, “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.” Much of the debate surrounded the correct interpretation of those two sentences, which, on the face of it, don’t seem to be too complicated. But since President Obama is not Catholic himself, those who supported his invitation argued that the “Catholics in Political Life” prohibition did not apply to him.

For or Against?
As a law professor at Notre Dame, Paolo Carozza was near the center of the storm. The moment he heard the news of the invitation, he immediately anticipated what would be a well-publicized imbroglio that the university was about to enter. The community would need to make a judgment–the undergraduates were already talking about it, and the CL university group (CLU) had questions: Which side is CL on? Pro- or anti-invitation?

The judgment, crafted at the end of a couple of days of discussion, was to opt out of jumping into either side of the debate, in order to be able to remind both sides of something that everyone had forgotten. The specific vocation of CL at Notre Dame for this crisis (as it is for every day) was to point to the fact that Christ is a Presence, not a packet of beliefs, a Presence that entered human history and generated the Church. The community did not want to play by the binary rules of the debate. The flyer states:
“An invitation to a Catholic university–an invitation to anyone, especially to the President of the United States of America–should be an invitation to encounter that history, that method of relating to reality, and that experience of life and freedom."

What then is at stake in this Commencement Day? Much more than merely defending values–even the most sacred–or affirming a Catholic institution’s “openness” to the world. At stake is our hope for the future of the university and the future of society.”

Andrea Simoncini, a law professor from Italy who spent this past year as a visiting professor at Notre Dame, was also instrumental in the crafting of the judgment. “This flyer,” he says, “really breaks open a debate that was already developing in an old way: pro-lifers vs. pro-Obamas. The risk in these cultural and political debates is that everything seems like déjà vu. Nothing truly new can happen. At the end, everybody clings only to his or her own starting idea. This flyer, on the contrary, suggests something really new or, to be more precise, it suggests that the newness truly is being the presence here within Notre Dame, the presence of a community of friends (professors, staff, students) who are deeply interested in these questions: What is the meaning of a Catholic life? What does a truly Catholic education mean? The flyer reveals that there is somebody for whom these questions are not abstract or theoretical, but a new way of living and judging because of an encounter.”

Not everyone was happy with the judgment. There was a desire for a more concrete position for or against–most were against–the invitation. Why not take sides? Did not the situation demand a more concrete response?

The symptom of a disease. But for Carozza, the role of the Movement in this particular situation was different. The Obama invitation, he says, is the symptom of a disease, and our role is to point out the disease. “In its content, it was a debate of basic values, morals, justice, what it means to be pro-life, etc. But Carrón reminded us that none of these things are sustainable without going back to Christ.” The judgment, then, was to challenge the terms of the debate, to subvert it, to uproot it, and to point out the actual Source that generated this university once, a long time ago, and which has been neglected today.

“The university could be consistently pro-life and not be one iota more Catholic than it is now,” Carozza concluded. “We took advantage of the fact that people have gotten upset about Obama, because that is when what we hold most dear comes to the surface.”
The problem of society today is not to fix the laws so as to protect the things we hold most dear, however necessary those laws are. Before the laws, we need a people who actually hold those things to be dear.

Notre Dame University Campus. Wikimedia Commons

The Assembly
On April 18th, Sunday afternoon, an open assembly was held on the Notre Dame campus, to discuss the flyer. Over 40 people attended. Chris Bacich, head of CL in the United States, traveled to Notre Dame from New York to help moderate the discussion with Paolo Carozza. The Observer, the campus newspaper, covered the event. Most of those who spoke at the assembly were against the Obama invitation, and the substance of most of their grievances concerned not so much the invitation itself as the prior secularization of Notre Dame and the loss of its Catholic identity. Chris Bacich drew a judgment from this, saying that only two options are left for those with faith: to try to seize power, and fix everything through power–within the Church and society–or to appeal to a Presence that is already at Notre Dame, and which generates a new society the more that we follow it. Power is the first option for most people, and the Notre Dame controversy has been largely driven by power and hunger for power, but more effective is following. This is what Christianity is about and this is what the flyer is arguing. Christianity will generate a new way of teaching, doing research, studying, and it can generate a new Notre Dame.

in the context of a friendship.Janine Joly, an undergraduate at Notre Dame, was among those who attended. “I think some people seemed dissatisfied at first,” Janine reports. “A friend of mine, at the end of the assembly, told me, ‘They still did not tell me what to think [about the invitation].’ But that misses the whole point. They could have told us what to think. But that would undermine the point. The point is that the judgment is made in the context of a friendship, all of us together, and that this assembly itself was a chance for generating friendship, and for an encounter with Christ.”
Janine’s sister, Juliet, also an undergraduate, was enthusiastic after the assembly:

“My desire for the future of Notre Dame is that everyone here realize what our university is for. It is for an authentic encounter with Christ Himself, and I desire this for every single person here. Whether this be through one’s studies, a priest, a professor, a relationship with a dining hall worker, a special place on campus, or through the friendship we offer with the CLU, I firmly desire that everyone encounter Him such that we remember the meaning of our lives.”

The Speech. On May 17th, President Obama delivered his address. Pro-life protestors, organized mainly as a group called “Notre Dame Response,” held demonstrations and a counter-vigil simultaneous with the Commencement ceremony, while a few mavericks interrupted Obama’s speech with heckling. Almost 40 protestors were arrested during the course of the day.

In his own address delivered before Obama’s, Fr. Jenkins made the point that, while much has been made about Notre Dame’s invitation, not much has been said about President Obama’s acceptance of it, implying that the President was ready for a dialogue and the protestors were not.

But the most that can be hoped for in a speech (without post-speech Q and A) is the willingness to discuss further in the future. If nothing else, Obama worked against the dictatorship of relativism by acknowledging that there really is a core truth that is disputed by both sides of the abortion debate which cannot be done away with by rhetoric or good feelings:

“Understand–I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. No matter how much we may want to fudge it–indeed, while we know that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory–the fact is that, at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable. Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature.”
Catholics will look on Obama’s musings on faith, doubt, and humility in a less positive light, however. Faith is the belief in things unseen, he said, and therefore, faith necessarily summons doubt. He continues: “This doubt should not push us away from our faith. But it should humble us.” However, the humility that faith produces does not come from doubt, but from the knowledge of God’s greatness and our own smallness, and of His mercy toward us. Yet that disagreement is also tempered by Obama’s appeal to reason, “ appeal whenever we can to universal rather than parochial principles, and most of all through an abiding example of good works, charity, kindness, and service that moves hearts and minds.” Most interestingly, Obama spoke about the impact that Cardinal Bernardin had on his own religious development.

Conclusion: Here is a man who disagrees explicitly with the Catholic Church on a series of very important issues, but seems to be interested in meeting Catholics, and discussing certain things, and working together on other issues that do not suffer from irreconcilable differences.

What Happens Next
It is not a bad thing to say that all speeches made by political leaders are written with political interests in mind, and of course any reading of Obama’s speech should take into account his political interests. Moreover, Catholics will not be satisfied by even a positive interpretation of his words; they will be satisfied by actions. Will Obama protect that conscience clause for Catholic doctors, a point that he alluded to in his speech? Will he listen to Catholic voices in the bioethical debates that this century will undoubtedly bring?

The American Church, and American society in general, will continue to struggle over issues that are rightfully called divisive: issues of bioethics that require decisions to be made in the realm of law. But the judgment of CL at Notre Dame is that moral and societal reform will need to dig for its source to something deeper and, in this particular situation, the Obama invitation, CL at Notre Dame found the opportunity to point to this deeper wellspring. President Obama has delivered the speech, and the controversy is already dying down. Some anger will linger, and some sadness. We should remain alert for signs of hope.