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President Barack Obama at Notre Dame

A Defining Moment for the Catholic Church in America


In March 2009, only two months after the inauguration of Barack Obama, the University of Notre Dame invited the President to receive an honorary law degree and to be the featured speaker at the university's 2009 commencement ceremonies. The move immediately sent shock waves through the Catholic Church in the United States.

Should Notre Dame Honor President Obama?

In a mere two months, President Obama had already demonstrated that he intended to keep the promises concerning abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, and other life issues that he had made during the 2008 presidential campaign—promises that had marked him as the most pro-abortion president in the history of the United States.

Since life issues had occupied center stage in those first months of the Obama administration, Notre Dame found itself in an awkward position: The administration could not claim that the President was being invited because of his support for policies consonant with Catholic teaching, but only in spite of policies that ran completely counter to the Church's moral teaching. The question now was: What would the Catholic bishops of the United States do?

Bishop D'Arcy: President Obama "Has Separated Science From Ethics"

One of the first bishops to speak out against Notre Dame's invitation was Bishop John M. D'Arcy of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, where Notre Dame is located. Arguing that the university was honoring a man who had shown himself determined to act "in defiance of our [Catholic] fundamental moral principles," Bishop D'Arcy announced that, for the first time in 25 years, he would not attend Notre Dame's commencement ceremony. Suggesting that, in honoring the President, the university had "chosen prestige over truth," Bishop D'Arcy asked "Our Lady to intercede for the university named in her honor, that it may recommit itself to the primacy of truth over prestige."

Reader Question: Truth and Freedom of Expression

Polls showed that Catholic laymen were divided concerning Notre Dame's decision to honor President Obama, with even a significant number who declared themselves pro-life supporting the President's appearance at the graduation ceremony. One of the most common explanations for this seeming contradiction was the claim that President Obama's speech would be a question of "free expression of ideas," and would not, in itself, present a challenge to the Church's teaching on abortion. Indeed, according to this view, the "free expression of ideas" is a goal toward which Catholic universities such as Notre Dame should strive.

But such a view ignored the Catholic Church's understanding of the purpose of education. "Freedom of expression" has no value in itself; the purpose of education is the pursuit of the truth. The expression of ideas that are not true or that contradict fundamental moral truths does not advance that purpose; it detracts from it. And in the case of President Obama's speech, even if he had chosen not to express his opposition to the Church's moral teaching, his views are sufficiently well known that the decision to honor him would lead to confusion regarding the fundamental moral truth that abortion is a grave evil.

Bishop Doran to Notre Dame: "Change the Name of the University"

One bishop who understood what was at stake was Thomas Doran, at that time the bishop of Rockford, Illinois (and since retired). In a sternly worded letter, Bishop Doran reminded Notre Dame President John I. Jenkins, who had extended the invitation to President Obama, of "the expressed directive of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in the year 2004, that Catholic institutions not so honor those who profess opposition to the Church’s doctrine on abortion and embryonic stem cell research." Calling the decision to give President Obama a platform at a Catholic school from which he could contradict Catholic teaching "obscene," Bishop Doran urged President Jenkins to rescind the invitation or to rename the university in a way that would not dishonor Our Lady, the Mother of God and Mother of the Church.

More Trouble for Notre Dame

As May 17, the date of Notre Dame's commencement, approached, the pressure on the university increased. On April 27, Mary Ann Glendon, a former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, announced her decision to decline Notre Dame's prestigious Laetare Medal, which she was supposed to have received at the same graduation ceremony. Among her reasons for rejecting the honor, which she had previous agreed to accept, was a sense that she was being used by Notre Dame President John Jenkins as cover for his decision to invite President Obama to speak. Father Jenkins had suggested that Glendon's appearance on the graduation program brought balance to the event—missing, of course, the point that one cannot balance the promotion of positions in defiance of the truth; one can only oppose them.

In response, Father Jenkins made a second serious mistake: He invited previous Laetare Medal recipient John T. Noonan to "to deliver an address in the spirit of the award." Noonan, a federal judge and a respected historian of the Church's teaching on contraception and abortion, nonetheless dissents from the Church's teaching on the former and supports exceptions to the Church's teaching that abortion is always a grave moral evil. The effect was to suggest that Father Jenkins was digging in his heels rather than taking seriously the concerns raised by 60 of the Catholic bishops of the United States.

All Eyes Are on Notre Dame

In the end, Father Jenkins did not take the advice of those bishops, and it became clear that the graduation ceremony would go ahead as scheduled, with an address by President Obama and the presentation of an honorary law degree to him. But the controversy had taken its toll, with polls showing that support for the President among American Catholics had dropped dramatically, as had approval of Notre Dame. The claim by the President's defenders that "Obama is not pro-abortion but pro-choice" was becoming harder to sustain, in light of the President's actions in the first 100 days of his administration—especially the appointment of the radically pro-abortion Kathleen Sebelius as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. A Catholic, Sebelius so brazenly defied Church teaching on abortion during her years as governor of Kansas that three successive bishops had warned her not to receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion. (Sebelius would later play a pivotal role in the formulation and justification of the Obama Administration's contraception mandate.)

Even as the controversy reached an impasse, however, Bishop John D'Arcy of the Diocese of South Bend urged those who opposed Notre Dame's decision not to disrupt the proceedings—advice that drew on the Church's teaching regarding deference to properly constituted authority, even when that authority is used to advance policies and positions that are in error.

What Will President Obama Say at Notre Dame?

On the eve of Notre Dame's graduation ceremony, many of the President's remaining Catholic defenders held out hope that he would avoid discussing abortion altogether, which would make the two months of protests by bishops and laity look like much ado about nothing. It would have been a wise political move, but those who had followed Barack Obama's political career from his days as a state senator in Illinois knew that he would be unable to avoid addressing the controversy. President Obama would need to convince those assembled for the commencement, as well as the wider audience at home, that he was right and that, moreover, they agreed with him. The strategy had repeatedly worked for him over the years, but never before had the President faced such determined and principled opposition.

President Obama at Notre Dame: Substituting "Fair-Mindedness" for Truth

President Barack Obama addresses the Notre Dame class of 2009. (Jeff Haynes-Pool/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jeff Haynes-Pool/Getty Images)

Those who predicted that President Obama would not resist addressing abortion in his commencement address proved correct, but even they were surprised by his bluntness. The entire speech, beyond the initial pleasantries, was an attempt to convince those who believe that life begins at conception to agree to disagree in the name of "diversity" and "fair-mindedness." Yet agreeing to disagree means accepting the status quo—1.3 million unborn lives torn from their mothers' wombs every year.

President Obama knows this, which is why, in his entire speech, he never once addressed abortion as a moral question, but as a question of rhetoric and debate. The word truth did not appear in his remarks; the reality of abortion was reduced to the rules by which public discussion should take place.

In the end, polls showed that President Obama's speech convinced no one. Those who thought it was a good speech had supported him before he delivered it; those who had opposed Notre Dame's decision to invite the President to speak disapproved of what he said. If Father Jenkins thought that inviting President Obama to speak would foster a dialogue over abortion that would advance Catholic teaching, he was wrong.

Redefining Faith: President Obama at Notre Dame

President Barack Obama and Notre Dame President John Jenkins talk. (Jeff Haynes-Pool/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jeff Haynes-Pool/Getty Images)

President Obama's speech not only made it clear how unwilling he was to compromise on the issue of abortion (while expecting those who believe that life begins at conception to agree to disagree); it also made it clear that he, though a nominal but nonpracticing Christian, felt no compunction in telling Christians how they should practice their Faith. (Which, in retrospect, means that the Obama administration's contraceptive mandate should have come as no surprise.)

In front of an audience which included not a few theologians, the President redefined faith. Where Saint Paul defined faith as "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen," Barack Obama declared that faith is "the belief in things not seen" which "necessarily admits doubts." For the Christian, faith erases doubt; for the President, faith and doubt go hand in hand.

This redefinition of faith was not merely sloppy thinking on President Obama's part; it was a rhetorical device designed to set up his appeal to reason, which, unlike faith, does not "admit doubt" in the President's worldview.

Thus anything on which Barack Obama disagrees with Catholic moral teaching—abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, gay "marriage"—can be portrayed as a conflict between faith and reason. Christians who believe that abortion is tantamount to murder do so on "faith" (even if biology is squarely on their side), so they must "admit doubt" about the correctness of their beliefs. "Reason," on the other hand, can convince us that agreeing to disagree is the "fair-minded" way to approach such contentious issues. The President warned against "self-righteousness" in his speech, yet his own words made it clear that those who disagree with him need to subject their deeply held beliefs to a doubt that he does not seem to entertain about his.

Notre Dame and the End of Catholic Education in America

In the end, though, President Obama's appearance at Notre Dame told us more about the state of Catholic education in the United States than it did about Barack Obama. Nothing the President said in his commencement address was out of character; but Notre Dame's decision to extend the invitation in the first place caused such controversy precisely because many American Catholics still believe that Catholic institutions of higher education should be promoting Catholic teaching rather than suggesting that it is one option among many. Father Jenkins praised President Obama for accepting the invitation to speak, but President Obama had everything to gain by doing so; an appearance at any Catholic university, let alone the most prestigious Catholic university in the country, would legitimize his radically pro-abortion position.

President Obama received a standing ovation from the graduating seniors of Notre Dame for a speech that not only contradicted Catholic teaching on abortion but redefined faith in a way that strikes at the heart of Christianity. That he did so should have surprised no one, especially Father Jenkins. That Father Jenkins and the students who gave President Obama a standing ovation should have found nothing wrong with his remarks indicates a serious weakness in the moral and intellectual training of both.

The Fruits of President Obama's Notre Dame Address

Two weeks after President Obama's address at Notre Dame, George Tiller was murdered in Kansas. One of the country's most prolific late-term abortionists, Tiller had been a significant donor to the campaigns of former Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius (President Obama's secretary of Health and Human Services).

Tiller's murder was portrayed as proof of why President Obama's call for "fair-mindedness" and "toleration" was necessary. It is acceptable (so the argument went) to disagree with Tiller's multimillion-dollar business; but any attempt to act on the belief that abortion is wrong—through, say, promotion of legislation that would restrict "partial-birth" abortion—was equated with the murder of Tiller. Of course, those who argue that abortion is wrong do so because they regard the murder of an unborn child and the murder of an adult man as equally abhorrent. Working to end abortion does not entail murder; it properly values human life at all stages.

The promotion of "toleration," on the other hand, serves a different purpose: the preservation of the status quo—that is, the death of 1.3 million unborn children per year. The rhetoric of President Obama's Notre Dame address had had its effect, and George Tiller, who claimed to have performed over 60,000 abortions, was declared a "martyr" and even a "saint" for those acts.

And that, in itself, is reason to lament the decision of Notre Dame to provide the most pro-abortion president in the history of the United States with a platform on which to attack Catholic moral teaching.

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