Even assuming (but not agreeing) that all the prior presidential honors were good ideas, another fact distinguishes this president from his predecessors: The U.S. bishops declared in 2004 that no public figure who supports abortion may be honored by a Catholic institution. This criticism has been made most acutely by former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican and long-time Harvard Law professor Mary Ann Glendon. Glendon was to receive the Laetare Medal at commencement, and to deliver her own address to the graduates. She declined the medal, however, stating in a letter to Jenkins that “I am at a loss to understand why a Catholic university should disrespect” the bishops’directive by honoring Obama.
There is nothing new here, either. Legendary Notre Dame president Fr. Theodore Hesburgh famously declared Notre Dame’s independence from “ecclesiastical” “authority” in 1967. Even on matters remotely connected to academic function — if they are connected at all — Notre Dame has not abided Bishop D’Arcy’s pastoral interventions. When he criticized the Queer Film Festival on campus as morally toxic, university spokesman Matthew Storin said that Notre Dame had “great respect and affection” for D’Arcy. But the faculty and administration had a different idea, Storin said, of “academic freedom.” When Bishop D’Arcy objected to the campus production of The Vagina Monologues as odious, Jenkins called him a “friend” whose advice he welcomed. Notre Dame staged the play.
I rehearse these details neither for the sake of criticism nor to embarrass anybody. I rehearse them to show that Notre Dame’s attempts to portray honoring Obama as a decision about something other
than honoring Obama fail. Notre Dame did not on March 20 announce a decision to continue a tradition or to be non-partisan or to exhibit its patriotic feelings. Notre Dame’s decision had nothing to do with academic freedom. It will not do to say that Notre Dame does as Notre Dame did. Notre Dame freely chose to honor Barack Obama at this year’s commencement. It is unworthy of the university to suggest otherwise.
I rehearse these details for another reason. They point to the truth that Notre Dame’s decision to honor Obama was, nonetheless, probably taken too casually and unreflectively, even as a no-brainer: “Of course we want the president to come to our graduation. Where do we sign?”
Notre Dame could not have expected the tidal wave of criticism it has received. Notre Dame did not foresee that its decision would elicit 60 (and counting) episcopal rebukes, that it would effectively pit the university against the Church’s teachers. Notre Dame could not have expected that its decision would become a national referendum, not only on the morality of abortion, but on whether — as some Catholic commentators say — any American Catholics are listening to the bishops. And whether any of them should.
I rehearse these details, you can now see, because this whole episode has taken on a momentous life of its own. It has outrun Notre Dame’s original understanding of what was at stake. The stakes on the table now were not there on March 20. The matters at hand now were not then known. Notre Dame now faces a new and different decision, one that is not determined by anything it decided on or about March 20. It is not quite a do-over, but it is close to that — a fresh opportunity to make things right. Nothing but the free choice of the responsible university officials — mainly, at this late juncture, Father Jenkins — will settle it. And he should seize this second chance by withholding the honorary degree from President Obama on Sunday afternoon.
Why? What is at stake now? What decision does Notre Dame face on Sunday?
At the heart of the matter is the immorality — the sin — of scandal. Scandal is, basically, leading others into sin, in this case by clouding others’ understanding of the truth about abortion. Here, we are talking about the scandalous effects portended by America’s leading Catholic institution when it honors the most pro-abortion president in history. The atmosphere at graduation will be festive, and a packed house will rock it with a standing ovation for Obama. Notre Dame dignitaries and faculty will be photographed beaming as Obama extends his hand to a smiling Jenkins. It will be a visual spectacle of the first order.
This celebration will weaken the belief of some present that abortion is always wrong. For some and perhaps for many, what was before the commencement a conviction that abortion is objectively immoral will become a conviction after that “abortion is wrong for me (I think), but there is reasonable disagreement about that, and everyone has to make that decision for herself, or himself.”
The message about abortion that those present will take away is just a tiny fraction of what is at stake. To get a full accounting of the scandal on offer, one must consider, too, all those elsewhere who witness or hear about events here on Sunday. This number may include many million American Catholics. For it is likely that Obama’s Notre Dame appearance will lead the national news on Sunday night, and that it will be in the headlines Monday morning. The meaning and consequences of the episode will be staples of cable and magazine reporting for weeks, if not for months. Scholars will write about it for years.
One must then multiply this effect exponentially. If Notre Dame goes ahead as planned, it will weaken Catholics’ commitment, not just to the truth about abortion, but to all those propositions that Catholics hold as true on the basis, even partially, of authority.
This is not to say that every Catholic scandalized by Notre Dame’s actions will soon abandon the entire package of Catholic beliefs. It is rather that, given the constancy of Church teaching on abortion and the university’s defiance of the whole body of bishops, Notre Dame would surely, even if reluctantly, weaken a linchpin of the whole of Catholic faith.
Note very well: There is more at stake than the coherence and strength of what people affirm. That is important enough, as important as the content of one’s religious faith. Abortion is an action item too. If even one pregnant woman, perhaps an unmarried senior graduating from Notre Dame on Sunday, goes wobbly on the truth about the morality of abortion, the consequences will extend far beyond intellectual integrity.