President Obama’s commencement address at Notre Dame’s Joyce Center, which I attended some minutes ago, was arguably the least important part of the controversy over his invitation, about which I’m writing now.
The debate at Notre Dame, at least among the actual stakeholders (students, alumni, faculty, administration, and yes, the Church hierarchy as well) has not been so much about Obama’s presence. It has been about this Catholic university’s decision to bestow an honor and provide an uncontested forum to a politician who has fought vigorously throughout his career to keep legal the taking of innocent human life through abortion — to keep it legal in all cases and under all circumstances and by all methods — and who is in addition extremely proud of his record of doing so.
This is why I found it so interesting that University President John Jenkins, who spoke before Obama, attempted to steer the discussion toward Obama and away from himself:
Most of the debate has been directed toward Notre Dame’s decision to invite President Obama. Less attention has been focused on the President’s decision to accept…President Obama has come to Notre Dame though he knows full well that we are in full agreement with the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of human life. Others might have avoided this venue for that reason, but President Obama is not someone who stops talking to those who disagree with him.
On the one hand, these words about what “we” believe at Notre Dame are a lot better than anything I would have expected from a Notre Dame president when I attended. But Jenkins’s attempt to turn the argument on its head is far too clever for the reality of the situation. What sane politician turns down a free opportunity to engage, with a single speech, America’s most important swing voting bloc? No one can blame Obama for accepting, but it definitely wasn’t a hard choice for him to make.