On Friday, March 20, it was announced that President Obama had accepted an invitation by the president of the University of Notre Dame, Father John Jenkins, to give the commencement address on May 19 and receive an honorary degree. What fire could not do, Father Jenkins and his Academic Council may succeed in doing -- destroying a major Catholic institution.
In April 1879, the Main Building of the University was destroyed by fire. It was "the Main Building" because it housed classrooms, student sleeping quarters, kitchen, library, offices. The man who had left France and founded Notre Dame 37 years earlier, in 1842, Father Edward Sorin, was 65 and saw his life's work destroyed. Nonetheless, with fiery determination, he exclaimed: "If it were all gone, I should not give up. Tomorrow, we will build again, and build it bigger." That summer, with help from Chicagoans who had suffered their own fire eight years before, 300 laborers, using mud from the campus lake, made bricks and rebuilt it. It was sufficiently complete for the return of students in September. It is this building that TV viewers see during Notre Dame home football games.
How did Father Jenkins calculate the benefits and the burdens of Notre Dame giving Obama a platform on campus at commencement?
As Notre Dame's own press release indicates, this would not be the first time that a sitting president would have visited Notre Dame. Eisenhower, Carter, Reagan, Bush the Elder, and Bush the Younger all spoke at commencement. And FDR, Kennedy and Ford each came to campus for honors. So, if Obama came and gave one of his first commencement addresses at Notre Dame, it would add to Notre Dame's secular glory only in an incremental sense.
Maybe Father Jenkins wants to honor Obama as the first African-American to become president. Undoubtedly this fact will be prominent in the biography the school will recite just prior to conferring the honorary doctorate upon him. (Frankly, there is no other achievement in his biography.) But this would be looking at the color of his skin over his policies.
Consider these policies and the burdens of Notre Dame honoring Obama. We must assume that Father Jenkins knows how hostile Obama, as state legislator, as U.S. senator, and now as president, has been to innocent human life and to the Catholic Church which tries to protect it. And Father Jenkins must have thought about the fact that inviting Obama would offend large numbers of students, the graduating seniors, alumni/ae, benefactors, and all pro-lifers through the country and the world. Moreover, it would constitute an attack on the pastoral authority of the local bishop, the American bishops as a group, and the Pope who have prohibited Catholic institutions from granting platforms to pro-abortion speakers -- even if their talks would not be about abortion and other human life issues.
Even those in favor of abortion and euthanasia and embryonic stem cell research view these points as core for the Catholic Church and would see honors bestowed by Notre Dame on Obama as Notre Dame's surrender and suicide.
So, any rational person occupying the position of president of Notre Dame who weighed the benefits and the burdens would not invite Obama. It would be self-destructive.
It was just last month that Speaker Pelosi who, no doubt, sees herself as the Supreme Head of the Catholic Church in America, visited Pope Benedict, but Pope Benedict was politically aware and refused to give her a photo opportunity. Father Jenkins thinks he is smarter than the Pope and will purposefully smile with Obama for the cameras.
Obama's visit to Notre Dame will be a one-way street -- in favor of Obama. Father Jenkins will not be taking Obama to Notre Dame's woodshed, to speak truth to power. No, Obama will be doing all the talking. Obama will co-opt a major Catholic institution.
Above the Main Building that TV viewers see during Notre Dame home football games is a Golden Dome. Atop it is a statue of Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. (Notre Dame is "Our Lady" in French.) At the end of every game, the football players face the students and all of them sing the school's alma mater whose title and first line is "Notre Dame our Mother." Another line is "Glory's mantle cloaks thee; golden is thy fame." Father Jenkins will allow Obama to take Mary's mantle and wear it on his shoulders for all the world to see.
The day Father Jenkins' presidency is over (soon one hopes), the new president, the loyal faculty and alumni/ae, and friends throughout the world will repeat Father Sorin's words, "Tomorrow, we will build again, and build it [better]."
(The author is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame.)