With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Friday, March 20, 2009

Notre Dame, Country, God

Today it was revealed that President Obama will be the commencement speaker for the 2009 class of my beloved alma mater, Our Lady's University. He will also be receiving an honorary law degree. My initial reaction was that my class of 2008 had been deeply betrayed: we fought tooth and nail to get Stephen Colbert, the greatest satirist of our age (and a Catholic); and despite a near unanimous preference among the student body, the University big-wigs shrugged their shoulders and claimed not to carry that kind of clout. We ended up with Cardinal McCarrick and a different president: Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen), both of whom turned out to be terrific speakers.

But it didn't take long for my feelings to turn to rather serious dissappointment. I can take a certain kind of pride in the historic nature of Obama's election, and I am sympathetic to his ambition to reshape countless aspects of the country that have been far from flourishing for the last eight years (though the jury is still out on much of the "how"). On the so called "life-issues," however, President Obama stands in stark opposition to Catholic Teaching: on issues that are fundamental and the morally heaviest. I need not rant about the centrality of the abortion and embryonic stem cell issues for an acceptable culture of life and the pursuit of a comprehensive common good. These things should be clear.

Obama has simply proven to be abominable, even monstrous, on such issues. So I wonder what it says when a Catholic university that is supposedly invested in maintaining its identity as a Catholic universitas, invites a commencement speaker who, despite his prominence, is so obviously in opposition to Catholic teaching; and has arguably more power to affect contrary policies than any other person. We might immediately say that Notre Dame need not be endorsing everything the President believes by simply inviting him to speak. And along the same lines, I do not believe that those who voted for Obama necessarily incurred sin as if they formally supported everything he does. But my gut tells me that a Catholic university has a certain obligation when it comes to figures who very publicly oppose Church teaching. It seems we missed an opportunity to show publicly how intolerable Obama's stance is on life-issues is to the Church and the academy.

Imagine if there were a very well known politician who was currently riding a wave of popularity for his promises of social change, financial stability, education reform, foreign policy overhaul, whatever. But this politician was deeply committed to reintroducing the "legal right" for every white man or woman to enslave any African American, as they so "choose." Or worse (and perhaps more apropos): this politician was pushing hard to enshrine the supposed "right" for non-Jewish Americans to murder Jews as they see fit. Or maybe toddlers of any race, for that matter. You get the analogy. If this were the case, wouldn't we have an instinctual problem with a Catholic university inviting such a person to receive an honorary degree and give a speech? Despite the relative good he may have done?

Personally (and pessimistically), I fear this may be more a result of Notre Dame succumbing to the pressures of being a wannabe Ivy-league institution, trying everything it can to run with its "aspirational peers." I fear, as others have, that this requires the school thinking of itself too much as an American research university (or, as Peter Casarella has said, a "multiversity") and not enough as a Catholic university. The famous mantra of fidelity, "God, Country, Notre Dame," would seem to be inverted to "Notre Dame, Country, God." Ralph McInerney has expressed similar concerns about the size and focus of Notre Dame in the past. Kevin Hart, who also had a rich conception of Catholic higher education, fled for UVA in the night. And the university has come under the critical gaze of MacIntyre on more than one occasion (and the mission of the Catholic university is one of the only things he is interested in teaching students about nowadays).

I would like to think that this event is a sign of Obama's willingness to enter into dialogue with the Church and be shaped by its concerns. But somehow I doubt that's the case...

What do people think?

Pax Christi,


  • At 3/21/2009 9:13 PM, Blogger A.K. Schwarz said…


    Very well said. I totally agree with you. In the grand scheme, it is one more example of Catholic accomodationism. I am all for dialogue and engaging issues, but I don't think UND can justify this move as an invitation for such engagement. Perhaps there's the thought that this gesture will somehow open the door for positive Catholic influence. If so, it is misguided. Sure, UND has had many past presidents speak at commencement (except for Clinton interestingly--anyone know why?), but after all that has been discussed in the past 5-10 years regarding Catholic universities and speakers (and bestowing honors), I would think some clarity has been achieved. Obama is already "confused" enough by the Catholics surrounding him in the gov't. UND has not helped here.
    Thanks again,

  • At 3/23/2009 10:56 AM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…


    You seem to cover all the possible motives behind this maneuver.

    Although, it may be worth noting the effect that an economy in free fall may have contributed to this as well. A president speaking would not only draw tremendous attention to ND, but (as you note) would place it among the Ivy's and certainly beyond the limits of those stifling Catholic institutions that reduce everything to morality (intended with a tone of irony).

    So I wonder to what extent the trustees and authorities believe this to be justified based on the broader US market to which they might be appealing (as opposed to the 'Catholic' market).

    In times of economic duress, the influence of the logic of the market cannot be overestimated.


  • At 3/25/2009 4:49 PM, Blogger X-Cathedra said…


    That's a great point. I had not considered it, but it's certainly likely that was playing a part in the university's reasoning.

    I can list many instances where the logic of the market has obviously dominated certain university decisions which, in my humble opinion, strayed from just economic reasoning. Now would be no surprise.

    Though I sound immensely pessimistic, it's only really because of my affection for the place. Tough love and all...

    Pax Christi,

  • At 4/07/2009 5:06 PM, Blogger JB said…


    I agree with most of your sentiments. However, I am currently embroiled in a discussion with a couple of friends. I'd like to throw a couple of their thoughts your way.

    "How is this any different from Jesus eating with the tax collectors and sinners of his day. It would have been a public, visible, honor for the hosts to have Jesus dinning with them. Was Jesus saying through his actions I approve of your often public sins against your own people (tax collectors for example)?"


    "Once Obama has been at ND, the press will forget it. The bishops would be better advised to lobby about other things! I think many of them are looking ridiculous on the issue of the President of the United States appearing at a Catholic University. Everyone already knows there are differences. The Bishops can simply say that the occasion calls for the same challenge that Jesus gave to sinner and Pharisee alike! Would you, as Archbishop of Washington, DC, say that the President of the United States may not appear at a Catholic venue in that archdiocese? I suppose there might be somebody in the American hierarchy who would argue for that. If it were me, I'd insist on being there to dialogue! Then see if he shows up! "

  • At 4/10/2009 1:23 PM, Blogger X-Cathedra said…


    Your comrades bring up some good points, especially the analogy of dining with tax collectors. I'm planning on writing a quick post addressing that. Like other analogies (slavery and Holocaust supporters) I think it's worth it to test the analogies, analyze for points of weakness, tweak them and see if they hold up. I have a few thoughts that may challenge how applicable the tax collector analogy is, but it sure has made me think more about the issue. Thanks.

    Pax Christi,


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