Saturday, March 28, 2009

What the Notre Dame Controversy is Really About and What’s Really at Stake

By Michael J. Bayly

Over the past week or so a number of thoughtful responses have been written and shared in relation to the controversy that has erupted over President Barack Obama’s invitation to give this year’s commencement address at the University of Notre Dame, the country’s second largest Roman Catholic university.

Notre Dame has a tradition of inviting new presidents to speak at graduation. Jimmy Carter spoke in 1977, Ronald Reagan in 1981, and George W. Bush in 2001. Yet Obama’s invitation has triggered a furor in some Catholic quarters. And important questions have to be asked: Why is this such an issue? What is this controversy really about? And what’s really at stake for Catholic education and the wider Church?


Chicago Sun Times columnist Carol Marin notes that the heated debate over Notre Dame’s Obama decision stems from the fact that the pro-choice Obama, in the first weeks of his presidency, “reversed Bush administration policy by restoring funding to international family planning groups that provide abortion services and by removing limits on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.”

Various Roman Catholic bishops have voiced their “disappointment” over the decision by Notre Dame’s president Rev. John I. Jenkins’ invitation to Obama. Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix, for instance, has accused Jenkins of committing “a public act of disobedience to the Bishops of the United States.”

Renowned Catholic commentator Thomas J. Reese (pictured at left) disagrees. In a piece in the Washington Post he writes:

How do I know that Notre Dame is not violating [the U.S. Bishops’ statement] “Catholics in Political Life?” Because Notre Dame is doing nothing more than what has already been done by Cardinal Edward Egan of New York, who taught canon law and worked as a judge in the Tribunal of the Sacred Roman Rota, a church court based in the Vatican.

If Cardinal Egan can invite Obama to speak at the Al Smith dinner in October of 2008 when he was only a presidential candidate, then there is certainly nothing wrong with Notre Dame having the President speak at a commencement. Other pro-choice speakers at Al Smith dinners included Al Gore and Tony Blair (a Catholic). What is OK for a cardinal archbishop is certainly OK for a university. Or are bishops exempt from “Catholics in Political Life”?


A national protest of Notre Dame’s decision is building – one that is seemingly determined to have the university’s invitation to Obama rescinded. Perhaps the most vocal leader within this protest movement is Patrick Reilly (pictured at right), the president of the Cardinal Newman Society.

Writes Reilly: “It is an outrage and a scandal (emphasis his) that ‘Our Lady’s University,’ one of the premier Catholic universities in the United States, would bestow such an honor on President Obama given his clear support for policies and laws that directly contradict fundamental Catholic teachings on life and marriage.”

Yet other Catholics are supportive of the decision to invite Obama. What concerns many of these Catholics is how the issue of abortion has become the trump card of every moral discussion both within and beyond the Church.

On her blog Enlightened Catholicism, Colleen Kochivar-Baker observes that:

There is absolutely no way this insanity would have occurred thirty years ago. None. That it is happening today is nothing short of embarrassing for American Catholicism. In my opinion our political battles surrounding abortion have made the American Catholic Church a cancerous node in the global Catholic union. The vast majority of abortions are the result of other social problems which President Obama is willing to address. That doesn’t make him a baby killer.

Kochivar-Baker no doubt expresses the view of many Catholics when she declares that she is “really tired of abortion politics.” She goes on to write:

But what I am most tired of is the notion that the only solution to the abortion issue is the criminalization of abortion. This strategy does not stop abortion. Providing women with the resources to raise their children stops abortion. Insisting males take responsibility for their sexual activity impacts abortion, something President Obama has been quite willing to repeatedly and forcefully state. Something I personally have never heard stated in a sermon.

She requests a simple explanation from the bishops: “Why [is it] gravely sinful to operate from the understanding that abortion law in this country isn’t going to change, and that other strategies must be pursued?”

According to Kochivar-Baker, such an explanation is not forthcoming because “the Notre Dame controversy isn’t about abortion. It’s about sabotaging President Obama for the crime of being a victorious Democrat. It’s about fomenting Catholic Republicans to keep flexing their muscle to keep the donations coming, to keep Republican activists in charge of Catholic opinion.”

What’s really going on

Meanwhile, National Catholic Reporter publisher, Joe Feuerherd (pictured at left), pulls no punches when he likens Patrick Reilly, the president of the Cardinal Newman Society, to an “academic ayatollah.” Feuerherd also makes the following observation:

Reilly and the Society, however, were strangely silent when then-Vice President Cheney spoke at the Catholic University of America in January 2005. Cheney (like Obama) opposes a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and has some questionable views on the “intrinsic evil” of state-sponsored torture, but that was apparently of no concern to Reilly. The Society did not protest the vice president’s appearance.

Here’s what is really going on. Ayatollah Reilly searches for hot button issues on Catholic campuses – anything that has to do with gays gets them excited, as do performances of “The Vagina Monologues” and, of course, pro-choice speakers (few of whom actually even discuss abortion in their presentations) - that will energize their base of donors and activists. Then they highlight these offenses on the Web and through direct mail to generate revenue.

Columnist David Gibson notes that “Reilly also didn’t protest when Bush was invited to give the commencement address at St. Vincent College in Pennsylvania, despite Reilly’s admission to Feuerhard that Bush was at odds with the church on some life issues – and, I would add, just about precept of Catholic social teaching.”

What’s really at stake

In her March 28 column, Carol Marin interviews Dick Meister (pictured at right) , the former provost of DePaul University – the nation’s largest Catholic university. It’s an insightful exchange.

“The role of a Catholic university,” says Meister, is to “espouse academic freedom where people are allowed to research, teach and hear many voices on campus . . . at the same time manifesting the gospel of Christ and the beatitudes to serve the poor, be the bridge between the haves and the have-nots.”

What about the fear that Notre Dame is compromising its Catholic identity [by inviting President Obama to speak]?

“It epitomizes Notre Dame’s Catholic identity,” he argued. “Hearing many voices is its strength, not its weakness.”

Thomas J, Reese agrees, noting that:

People need to recognize that Catholic universities have to be places where freedom of speech and discussion is recognized and valued. Not to allow a diversity of speakers on campus is to put Catholic universities into a ghetto.

When I was a student in the 1960’s, Jesuit-run Santa Clara University was attacked for performing “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?” and for having a Marxist speak on campus. Now we are fighting over the “Vagina Monologue” and pro-choice politicians. If Catholic universities are afraid to have people on campus who challenge our views, then we are not training students to listen and think critically. We are admitting that our arguments are not convincing.

A test of strength

Carol Marin concludes her column by acknowledging that “[Roman] Catholic bishops vehemently disagree” with Notre Dame’s Obama decision.

“Chief among them,” she writes, “is Bishop John D’Arcy [pictured at left] of the South Bend diocese, which includes Notre Dame. He will not attend, saying, ‘A bishop must teach the Catholic faith “in season and out of season,” and he teaches not by his words – but by his actions.’”

It’s a statement that elicits the following response from Marin:

If only Catholic bishops were consistent in their own actions. Haven’t they allowed Cardinal Bernard Law, formerly of Boston, and the prelate who obstructed justice in the investigation of the horrific pedophilia scandal in his own diocese, to remain a member in good standing? Law wasn’t sanctioned but rewarded: He now runs the third largest basilica in Rome.

Does that outrageous Vatican decision mean we shouldn’t listen to what else they have to say? No. Bishops aren’t one-dimensional. And neither is Barack Obama. Commencement will be a testament to Notre Dame’s strength and Rev. Jenkins’ courage.

To view and sign a petition stating your support for Notre Dame and its invitation to President Obama, visit

Michael Bayly is the executive coordinator of the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities and the editor of The Progressive Catholic Voice. This article can also be read on his weblog, The Wild Reed. For his November 9, 2007, Wild Reed article, “What Does it Mean to Be a Catholic University?”, click here.

Recommended Off-site Links:
Why Notre Dame Should Welcome Obama - Kenneth L. Woodward (Washington Post, March 30, 2009).
Pro-Life Tempest Over Obama’s Notre Dame Speech - Mary E. Hunt (Religious Dispatches, March 30, 2009).
Moving Up the Spiritual Food Chain: Notre Dame Disappoints Cardinal DiNardo - Colleen Kochivar-Baker (Enlightened Catholicism, March 29, 2009).
I Voted for Obama. Will I Go Straight to . . . ? - Joe Feuerherd (
Washington Post, February 24, 2009).


  1. By way of counterpoint:

    Commencement exercises have never been a forum for debate, so it seems odd to call this particular invitation an opportunity for dialogue.

    I think that many people who are disappointed with Fr. Jenkins' decision have no problem with either academic freedom or holding a debate on campus. I personally would welcome a forum in which Obama would openly debate with Catholic thinkers who oppose his views. That kind of rigorous discussion would be healthy. I've tried to engage Obama's ideas recently with a gloss on his Call to Renewal Keynote Address.

    There is no mention in this article of the honorary law degree being offered the President. What particular distinction has the President achieved in the area of law that would warrant such an honor? Roe v Wade is bad law, since it implies that the taking of innocent life is not a crime. Why should a Catholic university honor a man with a law degree who doesn't see Roe v Wade as bad law?

  2. Hi Clayton,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this important issue.

    Am I correct in thinking that you're okay with Obama giving the commencement address but not with him receiving an honorary law degree based on the fact that Roe v Wade still stands?

    If so, what politician would be able to speak? A strong argument can be made, for instance, that no one aligned with the Republican Party could. Afterall, they were in power for eight years, had the numbers to overturn Roe v Wade, but didn't. Why was that?

    I've heard some say it was because they need Roe v Wade as a way of riling a certain group of core supporters and thus raising money. That seems terribly dishonest and hypocritical to me. I've heard others express the opinion that Obama is at least upfront about where he really stands on the issue. They respect that kind of honesty and transparency, even if we may not agree with every thing he stands for.

    Also, I don't think anyone is expecting Obama to engage in debate or dialogue as part of his commencement address. As you point out, such a purpose is not served by that particular type of address. Neither, I'm sure, will he talk about those contentious issues such as abortion and same-gender marriage. Yet clearly the invitation itself is facilitating dialogue as evidenced here and elsewhere. Much of this dialogue focuses on Catholic identity. I welcome such dialogue.



  3. Here's Douglas W. Kmiec's take on the situation (excerpted from a commentary he had published in today's Chicago Tribune.)

    Even as unprecedented numbers of Catholics voted for the president (54 percent of the Catholic vote nationwide), Catholic voters paying respectful heed to local bishops had reservations [about Notre Dame's decision]. Of course, this is not unusual either. Politics is the art of compromise and candidates are the embodiment of it. But there's the rub, the Catholic Church is the foremost defender of unborn life, and properly, uncompromising about it. Obama is more pragmatic, accommodating other religious and scientific views that see the origin point of life differently. Obama may thoughtfully call reducing the "moral tragedy" of abortion a top priority of his faith office, but this is not absolute legal protection, and the Catholic hierarchy has not been shy about raising moral objection, for example, to the president's new direction on embryonic stem-cell research.

    Notre Dame's president, Rev. John Jenkins, has also made it plain that the commencement invitation represents no disregard of the church's commitment to life. And while it is unfortunate the local prelate, Bishop John D'Arcy, has chosen to be elsewhere rather than pray with Obama and engage him in conversation, the significance of the bishop's absence and Jenkins' candor is surely not lost on our intellectually gifted 44th president.

    So with all this reservation and dissent, should Notre Dame regret Obama's acceptance? And in light of the commotion being stirred up by Obama's detractors, should Obama feel unwelcome?

    No, on both counts; the "O" in Obama's name may be only remotely Irish (kin on his mother's side traced to Moneygall—which sounds like a place American International Group execs go to vacation), but this much is undeniable: both Notre Dame and our new president are "fightin' Irish" when it comes to working for social justice. The Obama administration's early victories extending health insurance to children, rectifying imbalances in a tax code neglectful of the working man, and persuading Congress to allocate abundant resources for educational reform, despite the economic distress, all coincide strongly with church teaching. So too is the president's disposition to end an unjust war, the exploitation of the immigrant and his pursuit of environmental stewardship that will no longer be profit's afterthought.

    To read Kmiec's commentary in its entirety, click here.

    Note: Kmiec is a law professor at Pepperdine University and the author of Can a Catholic Support Him? Asking the Big Question about Barack Obama.

  4. No, I also think ND could have made a much better choice for a commencement speaker. The choice is problematic vis-a-vis the bishops' request that Catholic institutions not give scandal by giving platforms to speakers who oppose fundamental moral principles that are part of Catholic teaching, as it could be construed as support for positions that are incompatible with those principles. I know Fr. Jenkins has tried to say that the President is being honored for other reasons, but he would have to be incredibly naive to imagine that the media -- and Catholic dissenters -- would not spin this as Catholic support for Obama's position on a whole range of issues that are incompatible with human dignity. It simply wasn't a prudent choice. And it was bad form not to inform the local ordinary until after the invitation was accepted, especially when, by the admission of ND's own PR person, the negative reaction to the invitation was anticipated.

    I don't know how reliable the dogma is about Roe v Wade being unchangeable. I don't claim to know the reasons why Republicans were not successful in reversing Roe v Wade, but I'm not here to defend their actions. The fact is that Obama is not neutral in relation to pro-choice politics. He's the only candidate ever to be endorsed by Planned Parenthood, and he has encouraged liberalizing the practice of abortion, as witnessed by his executive order striking down the Mexico City policy. He has also allowed taxpayer funds to be used for embryonic stem cell research, which involves the destruction of embryos, without any appeal to an ethical argument.

  5. For those interested, here's an excerpt from a commentary by Kenneth L. Woodward, an "adamantly pro-life . . . independent voter" and an alumnus of Notre Dame.

    On the dais at Notre Dame, Obama will find a familiar face: Harvard Law professor Mary Ann Glendon, Bush's ambassador to the Vatican, who will receive this year's Laetare Medal in part for her peerless defense of human life. It's important that the president hear her message as well as deliver his own. It is equally important that this kind of engagement take place at a university devoted to both faith and reason. Where else but in a university setting should we expect this kind of principled presentation of issues?

    No question, Notre Dame will pay a price for doing what a Catholic university can and should do. The Internet is smoking with protests from conservative Catholic bloggers and pro-life Web sites. One of them claims to have collected 206,000 signatures opposing the president's appearance. These pressure groups are aghast that "Our Lady's University" would welcome so resolute an opponent of the church's position on abortion. Some alumni, especially Republicans, are threatening to withhold contributions and bequests. The Vatican is receiving e-mail demanding disciplinary action.

    Catholicism is not a sect that shuns the world as evil. As a body, the American hierarchy has usually been both principled and open to political engagement. The bishops have congratulated the new president on his victory and pledged to work with him on issues affecting social and economic justice. Do they now find him morally unfit to speak at a Catholic university?

    Obama is not coming to Notre Dame to press a pro-choice agenda but to address issues that affect all American citizens, including Catholics. He will be speaking to students who, like other Americans, gave him a majority of their votes. He will receive an honorary degree because it is the custom, not as a blessing on any of his decisions.

    American bishops should remember that it was only a few decades ago that a Catholic was considered unfit for the White House. Do they now believe that a sitting president is unfit to address a Catholic university? It's time the bishops gave a clear and principled response.

  6. Great work Michael! I've said it many times before, but it's obvious, that this recent event is just another nail in the coffin that goes to prove that partisan politics has crept its way into the USCCB...

    If you have any doubt "what" Party that may be, keep in mind, they undoubtebly mean the Republican Party...

  7. There are many issues that voters use to make their choices. It is unrealistic to expect a voter to be on the same page on every issue so they need to prioritze. The fact that abortion is the law of the land and there is little chance of that to change in the near future may cause many catholics to lower the issue on the priority list. I do understand many catholics casting their vote for Obama in the last election, although I think it is short-sighted. Where I find fault is with the university honoring the President with a degree (which the author conveniently left out of his analysis). His record is very clear and and is quite an attack on the rights of the unborn. There is no mistake aboutit and his voting record is quite radical on the subject. The catholic church is quite clear on it's voting priority when it comes to abortion. Let him speak, at university is a forum for opposing views but to give him an honorary law degree from a prestigious CATHOLIC university is hypocritical.

  8. Whether President Obama is given an honorary degree is beside the point, mikey boy. Let's be honest here: it's Obama's presence at Note Dame as commencement speaker - honorary degree or not - that's upsetting a certain type of Catholic.

  9. If the faith of so many United States Catholics and of some of their bishops is so shaky, and their belief in the transforming power of love is so weak, then, I am afraid, their Catholicism is unworthy of the name.