Politics & Society
Today the controversies here at Notre Dame came to a head with the visit of President Obama. Since the university announced that he was to be our commencement speaker, the airwaves have been humming, the blogs sizzling, the church buzzing, the bishop booming, Notre Dame's administration handling, the newspapers and magazines constantly volleying back and forth, airplanes flying overhead trailing signs with aborted fetuses, my kids pointing to the planes wondering what they are, trucks driving around town blaring that Notre Dame’s President, John Jenkins, has betrayed Jesus, RS feeds, tweeters, twitters, and other things of which I have not the slightest understanding.
I fear that the hubbub on campus is one that few people, including friends and family, will understand given the media coverage so far and even today after Obama’s speech. The protesters who have been getting most of the coverage are the ones who have stood at the university gates holding placards of aborted fetuses, bullhorns, and the like and have been getting arrested for trespassing onto Notre Dame property. This is because these protesters are not from Notre Dame but rather outsiders. Seeing them, I can see why people sometimes think that anti-abortion people are mean-spirited and uninterested in reason. They seem not to have much confidence in one of the pro-life movement's best tools: arguments. Virtually every pro-life person I know on campus thinks these protesters are setting back the cause; not one of them is sympathetic. But what I fear will not be understood is that there have in fact been two groups of protesters, these outside folks being one of them but another group being the students here at Notre Dame, who have organized very different kinds of events – like the extraordinary one that took place today.
I did not go to the commencement ceremony, where President Obama spoke. There is a very simple reason for that: I was not chosen in the lottery through which tickets were distributed. The decision was made for me.
And so, after the political science department’s graduation ceremony, still wearing my crimson Harvard graduation robes, I walked over to South Quad, where, under a beautiful crisp blue sky, sunlit, at about 60 degrees, took place a program to respond to the events of the day from a pro-life perspective. It was organized by the second group of people I have described – the Notre Dame students who decided to respond to the events. It is to the university administration’s credit that it gave these students permission for this event to take place.
It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever participated in. There on the South Quad, around 2000 people gathered to attend mass, pray, sing, hear speeches and testimonies, and to clap. How do I estimate these numbers? Because it was reported to me that the priests who celebrated the mass said that they gave out 1700 hosts; there also must have been a couple of hundred kids who did not receive. The New York Times, by contrast, reported that there were only several hundred people there. Anyway, it was a joyful, festival atmosphere with families eating picnics and little kids getting lost among strangers but not seeming to mind.
From all that I have read about the civil rights movement, I cannot help but wonder if this is a little bit of what it must have been like. I’m not just talking about the feel of it, either: a joyful, prayerful, movement. What we were there to remember and to speak about was the exclusion of an entire class of human beings from the most fundamental human right that exists, the largest class of human rights violations in the world today, the oppression of the most vulnerable, voiceless, and poor people among us, a stark case of the strong dominating the weak, the killing of more than 1 million innocent people in American today and many millions more around the world, an injustice that surely ranks as high as slavery or the denial of civil rights to African Americans. Is this not the civil rights movement of our time?
The six or so speakers at the rally spoke to this injustice with unusual eloquence and passion – maybe even more eloquently and passionately than President Obama speaks. Several of their speeches were crafted with rhetoric of rare quality. Australian Father Bill Miscamble began the event with a stem-winding oration. There was not a dry eye on the quad when a woman who graduated from Notre Dame ten years ago as an unwed single mother and was told by her boyfriend to abort her baby gave a moving testimony – and whose daughter, now nine years old, appeared with her on the stage. A leader of local women’s care centers spoke of how their efforts to reach out to unwed mothers have led to precipitous declines in the abortion rates in our county and the next one over. Chris Godfrey, a former Super Bowl champion, spoke winningly, and Professor David Solomon dissected the issue at hand with inspiring acuity. Then, I heard perhaps the most moving speech I have ever heard when a black Catholic priest from Louisiana, Fr. John Raphael, gave an oration comparing the movement to protect the rights of the unborn to the civil rights movement. He spoke with the cadence of a black preacher (he grew up as a Baptist in the South) and had the crowd standing on their feet in continuous applause. All of the speeches were made with passion but also with charity – and with love for the University.
I am sure that they all could have passed the test of charitable disagreement that Obama was to outline over at the Joyce Center only a short while later. I only hope that some of these speeches become posted on the internet so that others can appreciate them. During the last speech, faculty in the crowd were asked to come forward to stand in front of the stage. I did this proudly with about 25 other professors.
When I got home, I went upstairs and read Obama’s speech, which had just been posted on the internet. For eloquence and tailoring to local circumstances and culture: give him an A! The point that he made best was one about charitable argumentation and debate, not demonizing the other. I certainly agree with that, and this part brings up his grade somewhat. But on the quality of its reasoning, I am afraid I cannot give the speech a passing grade. Already that evening, a blog entry on the site of the magazine America, which does not at all have a reputation for being a foe of Obama, called it a paean to relativism. Since we cannot settle our differences, let’s learn to talk about them. That is very important, to be sure, but Mr. President, you forgot about one small thing: justice. The leaders of the great justice movements, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Lincoln, the 19th century suffragettes, were good at being charitable and well-reasoned but they didn’t stop with simply talking about differences. They demanded change -- an end to unjust exclusion.
Obama spoke of the civil rights movement. Of course, he has every right to, and I was as moved as any American on the night that he was elected when I thought about how far we have come in race relations. But there is great irony here, for he is radically committed to upholding laws that exclude an entire class of persons from their right to life. Can anyone imagine Martin Luther King saying we disagree deeply about our differences but that the important thing is that we learn to talk about them charitably -- and leaving it at that? No, he said: I have a dream. And he demanded justice for those excluded. Obama’s reasoning is remarkably similar to the reasoning that Douglas offered to Lincoln in the famous debates of 1858: this is a moral and religious issue which cannot be resolved, no one is asking you to approve of slavery, only to let the states decide for themselves, etc. Obama’s speech included what I thought were rather small and uncertain measures to get the numbers of abortions down. If they do, then great. We'll see. But he failed to confront any of the real questions. If the unborn are persons, then is it not a fundamental injustice to have laws that allow us to kill them? And if they are not persons, then what are they? For that matter, if they are not persons, then why are you so concerned about getting the number of abortions down? Why be committed to protecting a mere blob of cells or flesh?
I then clicked through the major news outlets to see how they have covered this – The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, etc. I was angry to see that they did just what I though they would do: show Obama appealing for common ground along with the angry protesters from the outside. The rally that I attended was hardly covered at all. Even our local paper, The South Bend Tribune, ran only a small, thinly descriptive story about the rally and paired it with a photograph of the protesters! People who argue reasonably against abortion have a very difficult time gaining a hearing in this country.
During the mass this morning, I heard a roar in the sky and there, descending through the sunny blue air, looming and lumbering in its landing pattern, was an enormous jet plane: Air Force One. I could not help but think that what we were doing was speaking truth to power.
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