The controversy surrounding President Obama’s scheduled appearance as Notre Dame’s 2009 commencement speaker has people reeling in debate, especially among various Catholic sects. Undoubtedly, two staunch, opposing viewpoints melded together would create such a debacle, but the question I have found to be recurrently raised is where should the moral and ethical line be drawn with regard to Notre Dame’s Catholic context? Does Obama’s participation at the ceremony dictate hypocrisy on the part of Notre Dame for knowingly inviting a policy-proving pro-choicer as speaker though abortion is a binding Catholic issue or is this an extension of “positive engagement,” as expressed by the school’s president, Rev. John Jenkins?
With the reversal of the Bush Administration’s ban on abortion funding policy, his position on embryonic stem cell research and late-term abortions, President Obama has made his position on abortion very clear. For Catholics, laity and clergymen alike, abortion is an insufferable exploitation of humanity.
“Those who defend the right to life of the weakest among us must be equally visible in support of the quality of life of the powerless among us. Such a quality of life posture translates into specific political and economic positions on tax policy, employment generation, welfare policy, nutrition and feeding programs, and health care. Consistency means we cannot have it both ways. We cannot urge a compassionate society and vigorous public policy to protect the rights of the unborn and then argue that compassion and significant public programs on behalf of the needy undermine the moral fibre of the society or are beyond the proper scope of governmental responsibility.” —Cardinal Bernardin
Catholic groups have spoken out harshly against the school’s decision to extend Obama the invitation, calling it an “outrage” and “scandal” and “directly contradicting the Roman Catholic teachings.” (FOXNews.com, Miller)
The university’s leadership has their own reasoning for such a disputed gesture. In a statement Jenkins wrote regarding the matter:
“We will honor Mr. Obama as an inspiring leader who faces many challenges the economy, two wars, and health care, immigration and education reform and is addressing them with intelligence, courage and honesty. It is of special significance that we will hear from our first African-American president, a person who has spoken eloquently and movingly about race in this nation. Racial prejudice has been a deep wound in America, and Mr. Obama has been a healer.”
Jenkins went on to promulgate that his actions were not to condone any of Obama’s policies on abortion issues, but to “see his visit as a basis for further positive engagement.”
Catholic leadership is perceiving Jenkins’ actions as a discredit to the university’s Catholic identity. Since the university’s inception in 1842 by French priest, Rev. Edward Sorin, C.S.C., Notre Dame has been driven by Catholic principles and cultivation. Their mission statement:
“The Catholic identity of the University depends upon, and is nurtured by, the continuing presence of a predominant number of Catholic intellectuals. This ideal has been consistently maintained by the University leadership throughout its history.”
Much of what vitalizes Notre Dames’ Catholic identity is the lion’s share percentage of Catholic faculty. “…the soul of Notre Dame is its Catholic identity; that identity is in jeopardy; and once lost it would never be regained. A secularized faculty would stand in the way,” expressed by the group, Project Sycamore, whose purpose is aimed at protecting the Catholic identity of the school.
The school has seen the percentage of Catholic staff decrease from 85% in 1970 to approximately 52% to date. Under the recently revised and sanctioned faculty hiring policy, Catholics hired to the instructional faculty only exceed annually 50%, according to Father Robert Sullivan, the chair of the Provost’s ad hoc committee.
It seems as though, despite the school’s uncompromising mission statement, leadership at Notre Dame may be steering the school’s intention in a different and more moderate direction, placing academics and inspiration over principle. During his 2005 inauguration speech, Jenkins said, “With respect and gratitude for all who embraced Notre Dame’s mission in earlier times, let us rise up and embrace the mission for our time.”
Obama as the 2009 commencement speaker seems to reflect this notion.
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