Controversy at Notre Dame -- Should Obama Be Honored?

For decades, Notre Dame has stood out as the cultural jewel of American Catholicism -- public evidence the great American experiment is compatible with, and indeed enriched by, distinctly Catholic values.

That's why hundreds of thousands of American Catholics, including high-ranking church officials, have expressed outrage over what they see as Notre Dame's betrayal of these values for the sake of worldly prestige. On Friday, March 20th, Notre Dame University announced President Obama had accepted its invitation to be the 2009 commencement speaker and to receive an honorary law degree.

The university has responded to boisterous and prolonged criticism of the invitation by saying it in no way signifies support of all of the president's views and by reiterating its adherence to the Church's teaching on respect for life. That's a relief. But as university officials surely knew, this defense would be insufficient to calm the storm.

And for good reason! The Catholic Church teaches the defense of the unborn is not just one value among many others, but rather the irreplaceable cornerstone of human rights and social justice. Once you rationalize the killing of an entire class of human beings, all the jumping up and down about other rights should seem rather insincere.

Pope John Paul II put it like this:

"Above all the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights--for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture--is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with the maximum determination."

This is moral reasoning that respects a hierarchy of values. And with this in mind, in June 2004 the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement that speaks directly to what Notre Dame has done:

"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".

The question is how Notre Dame Officials can reconcile their choice to honor a president who has rejected -- and continues to reject so aggressively -- their cornerstone value of the right to life.

With breakneck speed President Obama has put the United States government back into the business of abortion abroad: He has ordered public funding of embryonic-destructive research (while dismissing much more promising scientific alternatives that don't involve destroying embryos) and he has announced he will rescind a conscience-protection law for health care workers who don't want to be forced into performing procedures contrary to their ethical or religious beliefs.

Interestingly, conservative colleagues of mine at the FOX News Channel, including Bill O'Reilly and Glen Beck, whom I respect very much, have suggested people are overreacting to Notre Dame's decision. They argued that upholding the invitation has more to do with respecting the office of president than with honoring President Obama himself.

I heartily disagree. The cap and gown are not given to an "office." They are recognitions of extraordinary personal accomplishment worthy of imitation. When a Catholic university gleefully grants an honorary law degree to someone who is using the law against the most vulnerable members of the human family--the unborn--vigorous and charitable critique is warranted, because silence would imply approval.

As professor Janet Smith wrote so well in a letter to Notre Dame President, Fr. John Jenkins:

"If someone like George Wallace had been elected president of the United States--no matter how much good he had done--no matter how many causes "near to Notre Dame's heart" he had elevated, Notre Dame would not have invited him to be the commencement speaker nor given him an honorary degree, for the world would not have believed that Notre Dame remained "firm and unwavering" in its opposition to racism and would not have thought that Notre Dame was hoping to spark a national dialogue on racism. It would have thought Notre Dame had lost its mind and faith."

On May 17th, when President Obama stands proudly in his ceremonial dress in front of the famed Gold and Blue emblem, and in the shadow of Our Lady's Dome, Notre Dame will be communicating one indelible message to its graduating class:

Here before you is a statesman worthy of emulation. If one day you grow up to legislate in your own state like Senator Obama legislated in Illinois, and if you come to govern our country like President Obama has governed it in his first seventy days, you, too, can come back to your alma mater, and we will give you a Catholic award.

Oh and perhaps another message too:

As you go forth into this world, the best way to find common ground on divisive issues, as President Obama has invited us to do, is to whitewash our institutions of what makes us uniquely Catholic, Protestant, Jewish . . . or whatever else gets in the way of prestige, or the sitting president's agenda.

Then President Obama will smile, together with his 2012 campaign staff, who made all this possible.

Notre Dame is a truly great university, and I say that sincerely. I am confident it will see better days.

God bless,

Father Jonathan

P.S. Here is a link to a debate I had on this topic with Notre Dame graduate, Phil Donahue. Wait till you see the fireworks! And come visit me on Facebookat "Father Jonathan Morris" or onTwitter.