EXAMINER PUBLICATIONS – APRIL 15, 2009
By Rich Trzupek
Much has been said about the University of Notre Dame’s decision to invite President Barack Obama to speak at commencement exercises this year and to award him an honorary degree at the same time. As a committed Catholic (or, perhaps, a Catholic who should be committed) I feel compelled to add my two cents.
First of all, the reasoning that newly elected Presidents always speak at Notre Dame commencements is not quite true. Among those who did not address graduates in recent times, we have Presidents Clinton, Nixon and Johnson. It’s not clear to me why it would be disrespectful if this President did not speak as well.
Secondly, although President Obama will surely accumulate many honorary degrees throughout his term in office, as every President does, a Catholic university should not accord him that particular honor. An honorary degree is both a gesture of respect and, to some degree, a sign of approval for a job well done.
Whatever else the President does or does not do, his positions on abortion and embryonic stem cell research are contrary to what Catholics – and indeed most Christians – believe. These are not small matters to the Catholic Church. They are issues that reach to the core of our beliefs. Issuing the educational equivalent of a medal to someone who has taken actions that are inherently sinful, in our view, makes no sense to me at all.
All of that said, I have decided that the other part of this controversy – having the President speak to graduates – is, or rather can be, acceptable to this particular Catholic. There is however, as you might have guessed, a catch.
The primary reason advanced for inviting the President to speak at a Catholic university is that it is important to maintain a dialogue with the opposition. We must keep talking with those we do not agree with, in other words. Keep the lines of communication open and all that.
Indeed. Dialogue is indeed a good thing, in most cases. There are exceptions, most of them involving providing seeming legitimacy to hateful and fanatic people when they are provided with a pulpit on the world stage. Inviting the President of Iran to speak at Columbia University comes to mind. But, whatever disagreements that I and others of my ilk have with President Obama, I would agree: let’s keep talking.
Yet, there is a problem with this whole “dialogue” thing: the word necessarily involves at least two people and at least two points-of-view. The enormous prestige and power that accompanies the office of the Chief Executive of the United States of America, when that power and prestige are on display in front of an audience of awed young men and women, pretty much trumps any possible dialogue for the day.
Not that one expects that the President will talk about abortion and stem-cell research during graduation day at Notre Dame. It would be foolish to do so, in that forum, so we may be rather certain that his speech will strong on the platitudes, as most every politician’s commencement speech is wont to be. Yet, the presence of this President, whose positions on these issues are so well known and have been so much discussed in the context of this appearance will speak volumes in itself, no matter what words he chooses to use.
So how do we maintain this dialogue, which most everyone will agree is so important? How do we complete this balancing act, during an event at which one opinion is represented only in a powerful symbolism (rather than words) and the other is not represented at all.
The answer should be self apparent. If we are to have dialogue, let there actually be dialogue. Someone – a student, one of the priests from the order of the Holy Cross, someone – should also speak at commencement ceremonies and stand up for the Catholic values and principles that we espouse.
I am not suggesting that someone should “call the President out” during the commencement ceremonies. Personal attacks in this setting would be inappropriate. He is the President and the office deserves respect, especially in this context. I am rather suggesting that someone should deliver a speech which clearly delineates the positions that Catholics, and most of our fellow Christians, hold dear. The spotlight will be burning brightly as Notre Dame’s seniors gather to receive their diplomas. What better place than this to establish the dialogue that everyone says they want?
What would such a speech sound like? That question has occupied my thoughts. I have done a bit of speechwriting in my literary career and the contents of such an address have begun to take form. Space prevents me from sharing those thoughts this week, so I will beg your indulgence until next Wednesday dear readers, when I will offer a suggestion regarding what should be said at the University of Notre Dame when the 44th President of the United States comes to call.