A few weeks ago, Father John I. Jenkins, C.S.C, president of the University of Notre Dame, came to Washington. He was leading a contingent of Notre Dame students who were going to participate in the annual March for Life. While he was in town, Father Jenkins called on Vice President Mike Pence. During this friendly visit, Father Jenkins invited the vice president to be the principal speaker at the university’s commencement in May. Pence, a native son of Indiana and former governor of the state accepted. And so he becomes the first vice president of the United States to address graduates, their families and friends, and the university community on the biggest day of Notre Dame’s academic year.
The guy who got passed over is President Donald Trump. In certain circles, the president is a polarizing figure, and Father Jenkins has been critical of Trump’s executive order that limits travelers and refugees from six nations that have had ties to terrorist organizations from entering the United States. Father Jenkins explained that he did not invite the president because he didn’t “want the surrounding controversy to distract from the central purpose of commencement.”
Okay. But Notre Dame hasn’t always shied away from controversy. In 2009, Father Jenkins invited President Barack Obama to deliver the commencement address, in spite of Notre Dame being a Catholic school and in spite of President Obama’s advocacy for abortion rights. At the time, the right-to-life news outlet, Lifesitesnews, reported that 83 American Catholic bishops, archbishops, and cardinals had spoken out against the invitation. The Associated Press reported that over 358,000 people signed an online petition asking Notre Dame to rescind its invitation to a president whose public policies were at odds with Catholic doctrine and morality. The editors of the Observer, Notre Dame’s student newspaper, found that based on the hundreds of letters they had received on the subject, 70 percent of Notre Dame alumni opposed Obama taking a starring role at commencement, while 97 percent of the senior class supported it. Ultimately, the protests had no effect and commencement went forward, with the university awarding the president an honorary degree.
Of course, Notre Dame is not the first Catholic school to welcome and grant honors to prominent political figures whose policies are deeply at odds with what the Catholic Church teaches — including DePaul University, Gonzaga University Law School, Regis College, and Xavier University, to name just a few. Bill Clinton was invited to speak at Loyola Marymount University.
I wonder if these colleges and universities are not so much faithless as they are star-struck. It’s been said before, and it’s still true, that we live in a celebrity-worshipping society. Perhaps the opportunity to hang out with the powerful and the prominent is more than unlikely-ever-to-be-famous faculty members can resist.
And it’s easy for Notre Dame to step away from President Trump. Just about everything about the man antagonizes his opponents, and they have gotten a lot of traction since the inauguration. There’s no chance that Notre Dame will be inundated with protesters demanding that President Trump replace Vice President Pence as commencement speaker.
I have to admire the savvy of Notre Dame’s administrators. With one invitation, they honor the new administration in Washington, while neatly sidestepping the man at the head of it.