U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Obama, Notre Dame, And Catholic Higher Education

[Updated: 4:35 CST, 3/24]

Notre Dame invited President Barack Obama to speak at its upcoming commencement ceremony. He accepted. The current plan is that he will also be awarded an honorary doctorate of laws. The linked article reports that “Obama will be the sixth U.S. president since Dwight Eisenhower to speak at a Notre Dame commencement.” This Yahoo article reports that the other past presidents to speak include:

2001—President George W. Bush.
1992—President George H.W. Bush
1981—President Ronald Reagan
1977—President Jimmy Carter
1960—President Dwight Eisenhower

Some concerned alums and non-alum Catholics are opposed to Obama giving the commencement. The leader of the Fort Wayne-South Bend diocese, Bishop John M. D’Arcy, will not attend. Why the resistance? For the Obama administration’s early actions on stem cell research, the so-called “Mexico City Policy,” and for rescinding some health-care worker conscience protections strengthened by President George W. Bush late last year. Catholics see these actions as indicative of Obama not sharing their concerns about abortion or pro-life issues in general.

But what can we learn from the circumstances of past presidential appearances at Notre Dame? President Carter might be a useful example in terms of precedent. He had been criticized by the Catholic hierarchy during his 1976 campaign for not promoting an anti-abortion plank to the Constitution. At the time of his commencement address, he was not viewed favorably by the Catholic hierarchy on abortion. Carter used the occasion to give a foreign policy speech.

Eisenhower spoke on balancing domestic and foreign policy. Reagan, making his first public appearance after the assassination attempt, spoke on shrinking the nation’s government. Bush senior spoke on “family values and service to society.”

Although the effects the following circumstances were indirect, Eisenhower, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush nominated Supreme Court justices that both instituted and upheld Roe versus Wade. You can’t hold Eisenhower or Reagan responsible for justice actions, due to the timing of the Roe decision and the points at which they gave their commencements. But one could argue that Bush senior could have been held accountable.

Some past commencement invitees, prior to speaking, have been accused of criminal actions, or held politically and theologically controversial opinions–both conservative and liberal. Off-hand examples include Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, who gave the 1983 commencement, as well as William F. Buckley, Jr. (1978), Jose Napoleon Duarte (1985, former El Salvadoran president accused of election fraud in 1972), and Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman (1865, accused of atrocities during the famous “March to the Sea”). More digging on my part would no doubt expose other dirty laundry from past speakers. The point is that Notre Dame is no stranger to inviting speakers with questionable Catholic resumes even apart from current Culture Wars vitriol.

But is a commencement address the right place and time for Notre Dame, or any Catholic university, to take a stand on pro-life causes? Perhaps. If so, has President Obama warranted a strong negative reaction? Is it not prudent to consider the nature of the commencement address rather than the speaker? Is it not the content of the speech that matters more than the speaker when arguments against the person, on the whole, are still somewhat weak? What if Obama chooses the occasion to talk about programs for reducing the numbers of poor and homeless in America? What if he rolls out more details on his support for reducing abortion demand (e.g. like promoting the 95-10 initiative supported by Democrats for Life of America)? But, more generally, what role do Catholic universities play in promoting dialogue on subjects of concern to Catholics?

I don’t know the answers to all of these questions. But I have a sense of what U.S. Catholic intellectual history can tell us. Namely, that the possession of an uncomplicated, unblemished resume—whether the blemishes are small or potentially big—is no prerequisite for being invited. – TL

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. David,

    Thanks. I’ve been faulted, privately and in a minor way, for not pointing out that Notre Dame could’ve invited him to speak without awarding the honorary doctorate. But I think that crowd overestimates the real honor of an honorary doctorate.

    My biggest objection to the opposition is its ad hominem nature, in an academic setting no less. Plus, both the opposition and the advocates are thinking about symbolism, so it’s a bit of a tempest in a teapot.

    – TL

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