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US/ Obama at Notre Dame: Exploring the Controversy and its Roots

April Thu 16, 2009

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The University of Notre Dame’s decision to invite US President Barack Obama to speak at this year’s commencement ceremony, during which he is to be granted an honorary doctorate in Law, has sparked widespread controversy, not only on campus, but across and even beyond the United States.

 

Opponents of the university’s decision are outraged that this prominent Catholic university would honor Obama, given his ardent and longstanding support of pro-choice policies. The president of the university, Fr. John Jenkins, has tried to clarify that this invitation is an opportunity for dialogue, which “should in no way be taken as condoning or endorsing [Obama’s] positions on specific issues regarding the protection of life.” Opponents argue that this still runs contrary to a statement by US Catholic Bishops that “Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles.”

 

On campus, the atmosphere has been tense. In the week following the announcement of the decision, the daily campus newspaper The Observer reported receiving 612 Letters to the Editor, 313 of which were from alumni. 70 percent of these alumni were against the university’s decision. Several of them expressed “outrage,” “shame,” “disgust” and “disappointment” in their letters. Many threatened to stop contributing money to the university and some even called for Fr. Jenkins’ resignation.

 

The student response was almost the reverse. 73 percent of their letters were supportive of the decision. And of those who are in this year’s graduating class, 97 percent were supportive. Most of these students expressed enthusiasm and excitement at the university’s decision, urging opponents not to be so narrow-mindedly focused on a “single issue”. Conversely, a few students wrote that they were “shocked” and “saddened” by the decision and have decided not to attend their own commencement.

 

A sample of letters to the campus newspaper is of course not representative of the overall response to the university’s decision. Still, these are comparable to perspectives in other newspapers, blogs and websites, and even manifested in actions of protest. Several alumni and external groups, concerned with what they perceive to be a loss of Catholic identity, have started online petitions. Two such groups, Project Sycamore and the Cardinal Newman Society, have together collected over 270,000 signatures against the “scandal” at Notre Dame.

 

Dissatisfied with merely voicing complaints, a coalition of 11 student groups called “ND Response” has started organizing and coordinating student protest activities. They insist that their aim is not to criticize Fr. Jenkins or the administration. Their opposition is not to Obama’s coming to campus or even speaking at the ceremony, but to his receiving an honorary degree, and their persistent petition is for the university to rescind the latter. Among their plans include various protest rallies, a “one million Rosaries” prayer campaign, and a “festival of life” which plans to bring in many speakers from around the country during the commencement weekend to mark “a rebirth of the American pro-life movement.”

 

Their first protest / prayer rally, held on Palm Sunday, drew around 400 people. Noteworthy among them was Randall Terry, a controversial activist who aims to either force the university to withdraw its decision, or to create a situation such that Obama will decide not to attend. Terry’s approach is perceived by several pro-life student groups as extremist and has led them to disassociate themselves from him.

 

More than 30 American Bishops have also openly denounced Notre Dame’s invitation to Obama, including the Bishop of Notre Dame, who was not informed of the decision until after it was made. Hugh Cleary, the superior of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, the religious order which founded Notre Dame, recently wrote an open letter to Obama, expressing a sense of anguish. While sincerely desiring to welcome Obama to Notre Dame, he asked, “how are we Catholics to deal with you, or any other government leader, who upholds what we believe to be the intrinsic evil of abortion…? How are we to confront Catholic leaders in your own Administration by whom we feel so abandoned?”

 

Cleary’s struggle echoes an observation by American theologian David Schindler. In his 1996 book Heart of the World, Center of the Church, Schindler critiques Fr. Hesburgh, who was president of the University of Notre Dame from 1952 to 1987. Hesburgh had insisted that for a Catholic university in the modern world, “the reality and terms of this world are well established and must be observed”; the modern Catholic university must be “first and foremost a university,” and only secondarily Catholic. Schindler criticizes the idea that “Catholic” can be simply added on as any other adjective, as though the assumptions in contemporary disciplines about rationality and faith were somehow “neutral.” Schindler argues that this approach effectively results in a secularization and concomitant “fideizing” of Catholicism. Given the rift between those who see the invitation to Obama as a healthy sign of Catholic openness to the world versus those who denounce it as a desecration of Catholic integrity because of the affront to the realm of “faith and morals,” his argument might bear some merit.

 

The problem spills beyond the confines of the Catholic university and suggests a larger fragmentation within American Catholicism. In a recent interview with Zenit, Mariangela Sullivan, the leader of the ND Response group at Notre Dame, noted that 50 percent of American Catholics voted for Obama: “Catholicism in America—as well as the entire pro-life movement—is a house divided.”

 

The situation at Notre Dame thus seems symptomatic of deeper tensions in American Catholicism. Catholics from the earliest days of their presence in the United States have tried to hold in tension what seemed to be competing allegiances. They resisted their Protestant counterparts’ accusations that their commitment to Rome rendered them incapable of commitment to America. Over the past century, through successful assimilation into the mainstream—especially with the election of JFK as the first American Catholic president—it began to appear as though this were a thing of the past. Kennedy, however, had to assure the American public that his Catholic faith would only be private and would not get in the way of his primary commitment to the Democratic Party and to America. Prominent Catholic politicians to this day seem to have followed his lead. Now, regardless of what happens at Notre Dame over the next month, an old question—perhaps an old wound—has been reopened for American Catholics.



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