Notre Dame and President Obama

I respect Roman Catholics. I am a Protestant Christian, but truth be told, I respect and honor the rich theological and liturgical traditions of the Roman Catholic Church. I value much of the social teaching of the Catholic church as it is expressed in papal encyclicals and letters that go back centuries. I am instructed by the Catholic church's teachings on human worth and human rights, the dignity of honest labor and the value of families. Each of us can learn something from their teachings on the dangers of capitalism as an economic system and the limits of democracy as a political system. Few are the church traditions that have expressed so outspokenly the moral, social, and theological bases of our interdependence on one another as creatures who share this space so lovingly given by our Creator.

When I imagine communities with the longest histories and traditions of the Christian faith, the Roman Catholic Church is one of two that come immediately to mind--the other being the communions of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Each of these oldest forms of the Christian Church has a heritage of faith embodied in its theological literature, sacred rites and liturgies, and engagement with its cultural context that is noteworthy. So I respect Roman Catholics, and honor them--albeit as an outsider. Not everything about this Christian tradition is worthy of honor and respect, and like all traditions, there are indices of the presence of sin and evil in what would otherwise be most holy persons, places and practices. But for such indices, there stands judgment and redress in appropriate form.

My Christian tradition is Baptist, and in particular, American Baptist, one of the so-called mainline denominations in the U.S. Here too there are indices of sin and evil commingled with measures of faithfulness and service. As far back as the early seventeenth century, my ancestors in the faith struggled mightily with other Christian traditions--Roman and Anglican--that sought to suppress the Baptist view of faith and church life as both heretical and treasonous. The story of the founding of our nation includes the strong advocacy of Baptists for religious liberty and freedom of conscience. My ancestors in the faith believed and taught that no one--person or institution--could answer for me before my God, or do anything that would assure or exclude my enrollment in the community of faith in its earthly or heavenly form. I, and I alone, am responsible for that, and so I must be and remain free to make my own decision about my standing before my Creator.

In our history as a nation, the affirmation of the individual's freedom of conscience contributed to the codification of religious liberty in the First Amendment of our Constitution. There we find the recognition of our freedom of religion and freedom of speech in a democratic system that acknowledges the right of full and free participation of citizens in public life and decision-making. As a system of government assuring personal liberty and full participation, democracy depends upon unfettered access to the venues of discussion and debate on matters that affect each and all. Particular beliefs and ideas and differences of opinion may be uncomfortable and dissonant to intellectual and social sensibility, but in our democracy we each have the right to hold our views and express our beliefs and live accordingly, so long as by doing so we do not infringe on the life and liberty of others.

So it is most disheartening to learn that many Roman Catholic leaders--both lay and clergy--have spoken out so critically against the University of Notre Dame for its invitation to President Barack Obama to deliver the 2009 commencement address and receive an honorary Doctorate of Laws degree. The reasons given by these dissenters are related to President Obama's support for abortion and stem cell research. How could a Catholic university bring into its midst in a most public event a speaker whose views on these two matters are at such variance, even contradiction, with Catholic moral teaching?

Such an invitation is viewed as an offense against the Catholic faith and, in the words of Francis Cardinal George, President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Archbishop of the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago, an "extreme embarrassment" to Catholics. Speaking before a conference in March on the Vatican document Dignitatis Personae, the cardinal went on to say, as quoted in the Catholic Online, "Whatever else is clear, it is clear that Notre Dame didn't understand what it means to be Catholic when they issued this invitation."

What is disheartening to me is that some Catholics oppose the invitation to President Obama because he holds views that are different from official Catholic teaching. Because of these differences, he should be prevented from speaking in a Catholic venue. Surely this resistance does not result from an insecurity among those who hold a Catholic view or an inability to articulate the Catholic view with a force of reason and theological understanding. But why else would Catholics oppose the invitation? Is it because the president's speaking would appear to be a legitimation of his opposing views on abortion and stem cell research? Could it be that the invitation subtly acknowledges the plausibility of non-Catholic views on these matters?

Or could it be that those Catholics who are so opposed to the invitation are simply intolerant, unwilling to acknowledge and accept the right of the President of the United States--or any other citizen of this country--to hold and express views that are not universally shared and are in fact socially and morally controversial?

There is no reason to believe that the university's invitation represents a change in its Catholic views on these matters, any more than the president's acceptance of the invitation signals a change in his own views. Indeed, it is most likely that the subjects of abortion and stem cell research will go unmentioned in the speech--there are equally grave matters before us as a civil society that need the attention and analysis of our leaders. Moreover, I hardly think the commencement address is a fitting venue to hold a public policy debate on these two issues, and I'm reasonably certain that the university did not invite the president with the expectation that such a debate would occur.

The General Social Survey, conducted biennially by the National Opinion Research Center, asks a series of questions designed to measure the degree of tolerance toward certain groups typically regarded as outside the mainstream of American social and political life. These groups are those who are anti-religion, socialist, racist, communist, militarist or homosexual. In particular, the questions ask the respondent whether such persons should or should not be allowed to speak in their community, to teach in a college or university, or to have a book written by such a person available on the shelf at the public library.

It is painful to think that some leaders of a religious tradition that I honor and respect seem to have taken on a new form of intolerance directed against a democratically elected national political leader. It occurs to me that the invitation by the university can and should be seen as a measure of its honor and respect not only for the presidency, but for the man who occupies the office. And certainly the acceptance of the invitation can and must be seen as a measure of honor and respect for the University of Notre Dame, perhaps the most prestigious Catholic university in the U.S. We live in a civil democracy where the intent is for all to have unfettered access to, and unrestrained participation in, the public venues where the discussion of matters that affect our common life take place. Universities, as free communities of inquiry and learning, are one of those venues, and to contend that a president who holds a different view should not be allowed to speak there can only be construed as intolerance.

My respect for Roman Catholics is not diminished, but I think in some ways the faith has been.

Douglas R. Sharp


Chris said…
Let’s characterize the situation a little more accurately. Obama holds certain views that are particularly inimical to the Catholic religion (in a way the Church characterizes as significantly graver than, say, support for the death penalty). The university is honoring him in a very specific way with the keynote slot and, more importantly, it is bestowing on him the title of Doctor (i.e. “teacher”) of Laws, a highly symbolic and personal gesture. Hardly any of the protesters, as far as I can tell, are of the view that Obama or his views should be banned from campus. They are not objecting to the right of the President to hold and express any particular view, or to the exposure and examination of such views on campus. A great many have said it would be great to have Obama or a like-minded person participate in a debate, symposium or other meaningful intellectual engagement at Notre Dame (which already does such things in the absence of Obama’s personal presence). Commencement is not that forum.

In short, there does not seem to be any reason for your attribution of such negative views to those on the other side in this matter, other than a mischievous desire to put unflattering words in their mouths and to paint them in an anti-intellectual or intolerant light. In reality, their opposition is perfectly compatible with free inquiry, respect for the office of the presidency, etc. etc. Let's not pretend this is about those things.
Norris Hall said…
A poll shows that 97% fo the graduating class at Notre Dame support having Obama, the baby killer, speak on campus.
These students should be thrown off campus.
How they can study there for 4 years and not be outraged by the invitation of a pro abortion president is beyond me.
The real shame is the attitude of these students.
Abortion isn't a subject for discussion for Christians. It is a matter of faith.
If students can't get that through their thick skulls they need to look for another University.
This is yet another example of how the media relies on stereotypes of embattled cultural warriors going at each other to take ground for "their" side to titillate our brief attention spans and keep us addicted to the steady stream of news ephemera between the commercials.

I think this brouhaha with Obama delivering the commencement address at Notre Dame was manufactured by particular Catholic groups who managed to enlist the support of some U.S. bishops to take ground in their fight to keep their beloved flagship university from becoming "too" liberal. Political, cultural, and theological positions in the vast spectrum of academic self-expression are relative, of course. My guess is that the Catholics using Obama's invite as a talking point for their agenda are more concerned about the voices of "liberal" elements within Notre Dame growing more persuasive than they truly are about main stream cultural perceptions of the university as higlighted by welcoming the hugely popular American president. For example, check out this Project Sycamore web site and this article there. For the counter voices within Notre Dame see the Watch web site.
revnlaw said…
Quite honestly, I am saddened to see and hear that we as a nation of people are so intolerant of those who think and speak differently than we do.

I must say this piece was well written and at the same time very respectful of the Catholic faith. I'd like to know how some Catholics would have responded if Obama was of another race but still held the same views on abortion and stem cell research. I agree with the author in that Obama's particular views are not at issue at the commencement. What's more, an invite does not suggest that either party has taken a stance different than they owned prior to such invitation.
Unfortunately, I hear a bit of racism in the responses to the what is clearly a great conversation starter.

I can only hope that as a human race we will one day learn the importance of tolerance of others no matter their differences -- race or opinion. What's more, we won't ever be able to move people from where they are to a different opinion if we don't show more love and tolerance for them just as they are. After all, is this not how Jesus approached others? "He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone."

Signed -- revnlaw

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