At Saint Patrick’s Cathedral Sunday night in New York City, the celebrant of the 5:30 Mass pointed out that “love” was mentioned 17 times in 13 verses between the second reading and the Gospel for the day.
Presumably, more than a few of those who attended the University of Notre Dame’s commencement on the same day heard those two Biblical selections. Some of them had to be among those applauding and “whooping and hollering,” as one anchor on CNN described their reaction to President Barack Obama’s presence at Notre Dame, where he was receiving an honorary degree.
It’s understandable that some (and even many) who graduated or otherwise attended the N.D. commencement might interpret love as embracing the “Yes we can
” message of Barack Obama (whatever that message means) when the most immediate and vocal alternative at the time seemed to be screaming “stop killing babies” and “abortion is murder” during the commencement exercises. Or getting arrested. Or well-intentioned ranting on talk radio.
Of course, that was not the necessary alternative to embracing the feel-goodness inside the Joyce Center in South Bend. Fr. Wilson Miscamble, a Holy Cross priest and a professor of history at Notre Dame, offered some instruction as to how Notre Dame can restore its identity in the face of this Sunday’s honoring of Obama.
Fr. Miscamble cautioned against “rhetoric [that] seems to ring rather hollow.” He said: “The words have not been matched by deeds. Instead of fostering the moral development of its students Notre Dame’s leaders have planted the damaging seeds of moral confusion.” Though speaking before the commencement speakers, he captured the rhetoric perfectly.
Notre Dame president Fr. John Jenkins did exactly what Fr. Miscamble worried he would: He led a hollow and confusing event. Fr. Jenkins said: “More than any problem in the arts or sciences, engineering or medicine, easing the hateful divisions between human beings is the supreme challenge of this age. . . . If we can solve this problem, we have a chance to come together and solve all the others.”
One might try to defend Fr. Jenkins, saying he was just trying to apply the Gospel of the day to the graduation ceremony, as the country was watching. But instead, while speaking vaguely about the need for both faith and reason, he preached a nebulous, vacuous gospel. He said: “Difference must be acknowledged, and in some cases even cherished. . . . We can persuade believers by appeal to both faith and reason. As we serve our country, we will be motivated by faith, but we cannot appeal only to faith. We must also engage in a dialogue that appeals to reason that all can accept.”
But there was no dialogue, or persuasion, at the commencement on Sunday. There was the president of Our Lady’s University treating the key human-rights issue of our day as one issue among many, granting the president of the United States a red carpet to make the case for agreeing to disagree.
Fr. Jenkins quoted Pope John Paul II and the Second Vatican Council in defending the Obama honorary degree. But he didn’t quote from the current pope and his address to Fr. Jenkins and all Catholic university presidents last year while visiting the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Benedict began his speech by saying that “first and foremost every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth.” He continued: “Teachers and administrators . . . have the duty and privilege to ensure that students receive instruction in Catholic doctrine and practice. This requires that public witness to the way of Christ, as found in the Gospel and upheld by the Church’s Magisterium, shapes all aspects of an institution’s life, both inside and outside the classroom. Divergence from this vision weakens Catholic identity and, far from advancing freedom, inevitably leads to confusion, whether moral, intellectual, or spiritual.”
The valedictory address on Sunday made reference to being different: Notice your bus driver. Recycle, even if your coworkers think you’re weird walking around with an empty can. The Gospel, of course, calls for a far deeper difference than this. It’s not clear that the university that presented The Vagina Monologues on campus under the Jenkins administration makes this exceedingly clear.
Contrary to headlines over the weekend, the Vatican has not been silent on this Notre Dame award to Obama. A little over a week before the Notre Dame commencement, Archbishop Raymond Burke, formerly archbishop of St. Louis, traveled to our nation’s capital from Rome to provide the leadership Notre Dame didn’t this May. Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura at the Vatican, Burke had something to say about Notre Dame (the Obama commencement is “rightly the source of the greatest scandal”), about Catholics and public life, about patriotism and faith, and about how one lives a life of faithfulness.