The White House yesterday announced that President Obama will be the commencement speaker at the University of Notre Dame and, right on cue, a controversy has erupted in Catholic circles over whether it is appropriate for the Catholic university to honor a non-Catholic politician who supports abortion rights.
The university's announcement made no mention of the abortion issue, but noted that Obama will be "the ninth U.S. president to be awarded an honorary degree by the University and the sixth to be the Commencement speaker." The university plans to give Obama an honorary doctor of laws degree at the ceremony on May 17.
The question of how Catholic universities should treat politicians who have policy disagreements with the Catholic church has dogged Catholic higher education for years, but has intensified recently with the rise of prominent Catholic politicians who support abortion rights, now including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice-President Joseph Biden. In 2004, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement on "Catholics in Political Life" that declared, "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." It's not entirely clear to me whether the policy is meant to apply to non-Catholic politicians like Obama, but there have been controversies over such honors before, most prominently when some at Boston College protested an honorary degree for Condoleezza Rice in 2006 because of her role in the Iraq War. Last year, I took a look at the situation in a story for the Globe and found that Catholic colleges were increasingly shying away from controversial speakers.
Of course, the president of the United States raises the stakes considerably -- is a Catholic college really supposed to refuse a platform to the elected leader of the nation if he has a disagreement, however serious, with Catholic teachings? Today, many on the right are arguing that the answer is yes.
The Cardinal Newman Society immediately set up a protest web site, asking people to "Help Stop the Scandal at Our Lady's University." Greg Kandra, over at The Deacon's Bench, blogs, "This falls under the category of "What Were They Thinking?" Thomas Peters, at the American Papist, predicts that Notre Dame will not back down, but says, "What can and will happen, I hope, is a frank discussion in the public spotlight about a) the mission and identity of Catholic universities and b) a greater awareness of the anti-Catholic policies and legislation that Obama is currently pursuing." And over at Via Media, Amy Welborn suggests Catholic universities stop inviting politicians altogether:
"I think it would be easier on everyone, frankly, if Catholic universities cut the cord with politicians completely. I don't care how prestigious you aim to be, how much you want your graduates to contribute to the fabric of American civic life, even a sitting president cannot help but associate you with a political ideology.
I'm not arguing for the ghetto, at all, but we're not talking noble statesmen here. We're talking politicians who are divisive figures and who, Obama's case, are pursuing policies that directly threaten Catholic institutions."
At a minimum, there is sure to be significant protest of Obama's speech that will draw much more attention, and likely broaden the debate, over the question of who should be allowed to speak, and receive an honor, on Catholic campuses. The Rev. Austin Fleming, pastor of Holy Family parish in Concord, observes on his blog:
"I'm a Domer, a Notre Dame graduate (M.A. Theology/Liturgical Studies, '80), and worked in the ND Office of Campus Ministry for three years. That job found me on the commencement platform in 1981 when President Ronald Reagan received an honorary degree. Reagan's presence on campus sparked some controversy but I'll wager that was nothing compared to what we're going to see when Obama steps under the Notre Dame mantle."
(Photo, by Gerald Herbert/AP, shows President Obama at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House campus on 3/20/09.)