Father John Jenkins, president of Notre Dame University, had a bad day yesterday. As almost everyone knows by now, Mary Ann Glendon – professor at the Harvard Law School, head of the Pontifical Commission on the Social Sciences, and recent ambassador to the Holy See – sent him a letter explaining why complications over the invitation of President Obama convinced her to withdraw from commencement this year, where she was supposed to receive the university’s Laetare Medal. (Full disclosure: Professor Glendon is on the advisory board of the Faith & Reason Institute, TCT’s parent institution, and a friend to several of TCT’s writers.)
This whole sad mess became tiresome long ago and promises to become even more so in the weeks until the president’s May 17 appearance at Notre Dame. But of course, that’s exactly why a good leader should be extremely prudent, in the strong old Catholic sense of the word, before he puts a highly visible institution in the middle of a swamp. The temptation to Schadenfreude over Professor Glendon’s letter is strong, and perhaps precisely for that very reason ought to be resisted. Because it is in no way a happy thing when a well known Catholic institution of higher learning finds itself in circumstances that will do neither it nor the Church any good.
Reliable people at Notre Dame say that Father Jenkins and his inner circle are not pro-abortion. Rather, they don’t think there’s much that can be done about it at present and want to be part of the national conversation on health care reform and other Catholic concerns. They also know you are not given a place at the Democrats’ table if you draw pro-life lines in the sand.
Professor Glendon is a pro-life Democrat who possesses great sophistication and horse sense. She was invited before Obama was announced. That announcement, she says, caused her to begin rewriting her remarks. Then, she learned of the honorary degree. By that point, the whole picture had become clear: high-handed attitudes towards the bishops and the Church, double talk about academic freedom and respectful dialogue, and a clumsy attempt to use her as political cover: “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.”
Note that uncompromising. No gaggle of hastily convened canon lawyers will be able to talk their way out of those well formulated charges.
There have been some elaborate guesses about “what Father Jenkins was thinking” when he decided to invite Obama. Sadly, he may not have been thinking very much since he rightly assumed he had a fair amount of local support. The ND faculty senate backed him. (People active in faculty politics tend to be activists.)
A Washington reporter reminded me yesterday that most ND students, though viscerally conservative, also “want Obama to be there.” I reminded her that most ND students probably want to get As without having to take exams, too, but the adults are supposed to run the campus.
The Notre Dame board happens to be on campus this week for its regularly scheduled meeting; we may see if there are adults present among them. According to one protest group, the university has already lost $8.2 million in withheld donations.
Notre Dame has already compounded its imprudence by announcing that it will award the Laetare Medal to someone else on May 17. Who? Well, there are a number of distinguished Catholics who could be considered, but what truly distinguished Catholic would want to step into this morass?
The White House, as White Houses will, engaged in spin control: “President Obama is disappointed by former Ambassador Mary Glendon’s decision, but he looks forward to delivering an inclusive and respectful speech at the Notre Dame graduation, a school with a rich history of fostering the exchange of ideas. While he is honored to have the support of millions of people of all faiths, he does not govern with the expectation that everyone sees eye to eye with him on every position, and the spirit of debate and healthy disagreement on important issues is part of what he loves about this country.”
That all sounds well and good, and very American and all that. But as Professor Glendon has pointed out: a graduation ceremony is not the place for an exchange of ideas. And we are already seeing the “ripple effect” as other Catholic institutions mimic Notre Dame in honoring pro-abortion figures.
John F. Kennedy famously went to Houston in 1960 to convince an audience of Protestant ministers that they could vote for him without qualms because the pope would never dictate his actions as president. A fair observer looking at his words on that occasion might think he went too far. But a fair observer might also think it noteworthy that the Protestants paid Catholicism enough respect to believe back then that it stood for something to be reckoned with. And the Catholic paid the Protestants enough respect to attempt to explain to them why their fears were mistaken.
For all the current talk of respect and dialogue, will Catholics look back on May 17, 2009 at Notre Dame with a sense that something was gained or lost?
Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His latest book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West.
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