The Battle to Control Catholic Commencements

Protests over Notre Dame's invitation to Obama grow, fueled by politics and clouded by a lack of clarity in a key Catholic document.
April 28, 2009

What might have been a coup at many colleges was, at the University of Notre Dame, cause for scandal: “It has come to our attention that the University of Notre Dame will honor President Barack Obama as its commencement speaker on May 17," begins an online petition circulated by the Cardinal Newman Society, which, as of Monday afternoon, counted more than 336,000 signatures. “It is an outrage and a scandal that ‘Our Lady’s University,’ one of the premier Catholic universities in the United States, would bestow such an honor on President Obama given his clear support for policies and laws that directly contradict fundamental Catholic teachings on life and marriage.”

The announcement on Obama was made more than a month ago but the controversy continues unabated. On Monday, Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard University law professor and former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, who was to receive a medal during Notre Dame's commencement ceremony, declined the honor. In an explanation, she writes that she took issue with the idea that "my acceptance speech would somehow balance the event. ... A commencement, however, is supposed to be a joyous day for the graduates and their families. It is not the right place, nor is a brief acceptance speech the right vehicle, for engagement with the very serious problems raised by Notre Dame's decision -- in disregard of the settled position of the U.S. bishops -- to honor a prominent and uncompromising opponent of the Church's position on issues involving fundamental principles of justice." (Newsweek has published the full letter.)

Notre Dame, which will grant an honorary doctor of laws degree to Obama, has a tradition of hosting U.S. presidents as commencement speakers -- six total, including both Bush presidents. "The invitation to President Obama to be our Commencement speaker should not be taken as condoning or endorsing his positions on specific issues regarding the protection of human life, including abortion and embryonic stem cell research," Notre Dame's president, the Rev. John I. Jenkins, says in a statement.

Nonetheless, the selection has been taken as such. This controversy that won't quit has been fueled in part by pressure from outside groups like the Cardinal Newman Society, which serves as a self-appointed watchdog of sorts when it comes to colleges’ Roman Catholic identities. But it's also been fueled by a steady stream of statements of opposition from U.S. bishops -- who, under the 1990 Vatican document Ex Corde Eccelesiae, "should be seen not as external agents but as participants in the life of the Catholic University." The Cardinal Newman Society counts more than 40 bishops who have stated opposition.

In a letter to Notre Dame’s president, for instance, the Most Rev. Daniel M. Buechlein, Archbishop of Indianapolis writes: “There isn’t a single reason that would justify Catholic sponsorship of the president of our country, who is blatantly opposed to the Catholic Church’s doctrine on abortion and embryonic stem-cell research. You dishonor the reputation of the University of Notre Dame and, in effect, abdicate your prestigious reputation among Catholic universities everywhere.”

“Your actions and that of the Board of Trustees of Notre Dame do real harm to the mission of Catholic education in this country and further splinters [sic] Catholic witness in the public square,” the Most Rev. Samuel J. Aquila, the Bishop of Fargo, writes.

Meanwhile, the bishop for the diocese that includes Notre Dame, the Most Rev. John M. D’Arcy, has said he will skip the ceremony. On Tuesday, he issued a public statement challenging Notre Dame’s interpretation of a 2004 United States Conference of Catholic Bishops statement that stands at the heart of this controversy. A bullet point in “Catholics in Political Life” reads: “The Catholic community and 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.”

Notre Dame’s president, Father Jenkins, argued in a letter to his board that the statement did not apply to this matter because the document was understood to refer only to Catholics in political life; Obama is not Catholic. The South Bend Tribune quoted Father Jenkins' letter as saying: "This interpretation was supported by canon lawyers we consulted, who advised us that, by definition, only Catholics who implicitly recognize the authority of Church teaching can act in 'defiance' of it."

Bishop D’Arcy responded that the meaning of the document is clear, that it does in fact apply, and furthermore suggested that he should have been consulted on the question -- as he was not. "The failure to consult the local bishop who, whatever his unworthiness, is the teacher and lawgiver in the diocese, is a serious mistake," he writes. "Proper consultation could have prevented an action, which has caused such painful division between Notre Dame and many bishops — and a large number of the faithful."

New Orleans Archbishop Alfred Clifton Hughes cited that same 2004 document Thursday in a letter indicating he would not attend Xavier University of Louisiana's commencement ceremony for its choice of speaker, the Democratic strategist Donna Brazile. "I recognize that Ms. Brazile is a Catholic Louisiana native who has worked effectively in service to the poor and African Americans in particular. However, her public statements on the abortion issue are not in keeping with Catholic moral teaching," he writes.

In one other related mini-controversy, the Washington Post on Friday reported a flap at Georgetown University. Washington D.C.'s archbishop, the Most Rev. Donald W. Wuerl, expressed concern over Georgetown serving as host for an award ceremony honoring Vice President Joe Biden, a Catholic (in this case, the Post notes, a nonprofit organization, Legal Momentum, bestowed the honor, not the university itself).

A lack of clarity about the implications of that 2004 document -- and specifically that one bullet point about awards, honors and platforms -- continues to plague Catholic college presidents, says Richard A. Yanikoski, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. “You have individuals who take that one bullet outside of the context of its original document, which was titled "Catholics in Political Life," and assume that it applies equally to everyone, everywhere, if they somehow are defiant of Catholic moral teaching. Well, there are a couple of difficulties with that and I don’t assume the difficulty is bad faith on the part of anybody who makes that or some other interpretation. It simply was a poorly written document to begin with" -- released in the context of the 2004 political season, when a pro-choice Catholic Democrat, John Kerry, was running for president.

Yanikoski adds, too, that there has not been consistency in how the document is applied. “There have been other presidents who have spoken at the University of Notre Dame and at other Catholic universities who have been equally opposed to other moral teachings of the Catholic church [aside from issues surrounding abortion] and yet were never criticized by the bishops in terms of them speaking at the commencement." (To take just one example, George W. Bush was a staunch supporter of the death penalty; he spoke about the role of faith-based organizations in fighting poverty at Notre Dame's commencement in 2001.)

“I am not surprised that some bishops have taken a strong and even public stand as they have,” Yanikoski says. "I’m not surprised that far more bishops have used the discretion to remain silent on this point. The matter will not go away in the weeks or years to come. This is a very high-profile case and we probably won’t see another like it for some time but the issue is still there and it’s there largely for three reasons: 1) the language from the 2004 document is still unsatisfactory; it does not provide adequate guidance to bishops or presidents. 2) Organizations, particularly the Cardinal Newman Society, in effect make their living on these moments. This is how they raise money and gain support. ...The third reason is that there is an inherent tension between the teaching authority of the bishop and the universities’ larger exploration of points of view for educational purposes.”

“Where does academic freedom of the campus bump up against church authority?” Yanikoski asks. “What constitutes an honor versus an award versus a platform? Those were the three words in the 2004 document. Are we talking about only Catholics or all people? Are we talking only about politicians or all people? None of those things were clear in the 2004 document. I have to believe that we’re not going to just continue to let this thing sit in a difficult place without some further effort to bring clarity to it as it applies to Catholic colleges and universities.”

Meanwhile, the controversy at Notre Dame boils on. “It’s the outside groups, I think, that are feeding the fire,” says Spencer Howard, a senior and co-president of the College Democrats. On Thursday, the College Democrats and 23 other student groups delivered a letter to President Jenkins supporting the decision to host Obama.

“I think they’re trying to use a school with the name and reputation of Notre Dame has to make a political statement. I think it’s frustrating a lot of the seniors here because they just want to spend graduation day with their friends and family,” Howard says.

“I have plenty of friends who on at least that issue [abortion] don’t agree but at the end of the day they say, it’s the president. ...How many people get the president to come to their school for anything?”

“Personally for me, I hear a lot of division on this and a lot of unhappiness or uneasiness that the university administration chose someone so controversial for an event that’s supposed to be unifying,” says Edward Yap, a junior and spokesman for ND Response, a coalition of 11 student groups that organized to protest the choice of Obama. “We want to reaffirm the Catholic church’s position on this issue and really show average citizens and Catholics around the country and the world that while the preeminent Catholic university in the land might be straying, Catholics at the university are not.”

Yap adds: "We appreciate the attention that other groups are bringing to this issue but I know from my perspective and the perspectives of other students, this really is an internal matter.”


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