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Notre Dame President Addresses Obama Debate in Letter to Graduates

6 years ago
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Father John Jenkins, the president of Notre Dame, wrote a letter to the 2009 graduating class praising students for their respectful debate about President Barack Obama speaking at the May 17 Commencement.

In the letter, Jenkins clarified that the invitation to Obama was not "a political statement or an endorsement of policy."

The letter, dated May 11 and delivered to my mailbox the following day, comes after nearly two months of debate over whether Notre Dame, a Catholic University, should invite Obama, a president with pro-choice stances, to speak and to receive an honorary degree.

Since Notre Dame announced March 20 that Obama would deliver the main Commencement speech, a debate has started that spread beyond campus and through the Catholic community. The local bishop announced that he would boycott the graduation ceremony; other bishops called on Notre Dame to rescind the invitation. Harvard Law professor Mary Ann Glendon, who was to receive Notre Dame's annual Laetare Medal, declined the honor over the Obama invitation. Anti-abortion activists Randall Terry and Alan Keyes have been arrested for trespassing on campus as they protest, and an anti-abortion group is paying for a plane to fly above Notre Dame carrying banners picturing aborted fetuses.

Jenkins has been largely silent during the debate. He gave an interview to The Observer, Notre Dame's student newspaper, soon after the announcement, but he has not, to my knowledge, granted an interview to any other news outlet since then. I've covered Jenkins as a news writer for the student newspaper, and his leadership approach is one of long contemplation and reflection before acting or making statements, so this was not surprising. Jenkins acknowledged the controversy in his letter, and said he was "saddened that many friends of Notre Dame have suggested that our invitation to President Obama indicates ambiguity in our position on matters of Catholic teaching."

He clarified that the decision to invite Obama does not reverse the fact that the "University and I are unequivocally committed to the sanctity of human life and to its protection from conception to natural death."

Obama is the ninth U.S. president to be awarded an honorary degree by Notre Dame and the sixth to be the Commencement speaker. The Obama invitation is not, and none of the previous degrees conferred or invitations to speak at Commencement have been, "a political statement or an endorsement of policy," Jenkins wrote.

"It is the University's expression of respect for the leader of the nation and the Office of the President," he wrote. "In the Catholic tradition, our first allegiance is to God in Christ, yet we are called to respect, participate in, and contribute to the wider society. As St. Peter wrote (I Pt. 2:17), we should honor the leader who upholds the secular order."

Jenkins referenced one of his predecessors, Father Theodore M. Hesburgh, who was president when Jenkins was an undergraduate, and who said Notre Dame must be both a "lighthouse and a crossroads" as a Catholic university -- illuminating issues with the perspective of the Catholic moral tradition while allowing those of different backgrounds to engage in dialogue.

"The president's visit to Notre Dame can help lead to broader engagement on issues of importance to the country and of deep significance to Catholics," he wrote. "Ultimately, I hope that the conversations and the good will that will come from this day will contribute to closer relations between Catholics and public officials who make decisions on matters of human life and human dignity."

Jenkins, in his letter, called Obama a "remarkable figure in American history" and said he looked forward to welcoming him to campus. He praised Obama's views and policies on immigration, health care, alleviating poverty and peace through diplomacy and his achievement in becoming the first African-American U.S. president.

Jenkins points out in his letter that among students, the actual dialogue has been civil, respectful and academic.

"In many cases, the debate has grown heated, even between people who agree completely on Church teaching regarding the sanctity of human life, who agree completely that we should work for change -- and differ only on how we should work for change," Jenkins said in his letter. "Yet, there has been an extra dimension to your debate. You have discussed this issue with each other while being observed, interviewed, and evaluated by people who are interested in this story. You engaged each other with passion, intelligence and respect. And I saw no sign that your differences led to division. You inspire me. We need the wider society to be more like you; it is good that we are sending you into that world on Sunday."

Jenkins told the class of 2009 to remember that Sunday is our day.

"You are the ones we celebrate and applaud," he wrote.

It's a nice thought, and I think a lot of soon-to-be Notre Dame graduates appreciate Jenkins' letter, but there's no question that Notre Dame Commencement 2009 is going to be all about Obama.

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