Was Notre Dame wrong to invite President Obama to give its commencement address? Andrea Sarvady, a left-leaning columnist, writes the commentary this week, and Shaunti Feldhahn, a right-leaning columnist, responds.
While President Obama grappled with the 800-pound gorilla attempting to take over the 2009 Notre Dame commencement, I was headed across the country, lucky enough to snag a window seat and a cloudless sky. Watching a wide swath of America go by – alike and different, serene and formidable – beat any other diversion the plane had to offer.
When I finally heard how things had gone, it was as I had expected. A quiet alternative service elsewhere; a disruptive voice drowned out by chanting graduates. The vast majority of seniors shared the view of their valedictorian Brennan Bollman, a pro-life biology major on her way to medical school. She told the Huffington Post that she felt Obama should be heard and honored, agreeing with the university president, the Rev. John Jenkins, that acknowledging the president’s accomplishments is different from supporting his political views.
One assumes that is why Jimmy Carter, a conflicted Roe v. Wade supporter, was asked to speak when he was president, and why the divorced Ronald Reagan was also one of the now nine presidents who have addressed Notre Dame grads.
I do understand the desire for those opposed to abortion to push onward, fierce and firm. Even as their numbers grow (a recent Gallup Poll put their ranks at 51 percent), their power diminishes under this Congress and this White House. Yet what, exactly, is Christian about refusing to listen? Refusing to even sort through the complexities of an issue that so deeply divides us? Refusing to acknowledge, as Obama did in his speech with the sea of nodding caps in the audience concurring, the many ways in which we are in accordance on this issue, across any wide swath of our country?
Most of the disruptive protesting and campaigning to stop Obama’s visit was not done by anyone affiliated with the university. The Notre Dame “Domers” refused to let their graduation turn into a political circus, yet also refused to ignore the debate. Some wore baby feet on their caps signifying their opposition to abortion; many of them engaged in debates across campus on this and other issues important to Catholics and scholars. On graduation day, Notre Dame listened to and respected a man that many disagree with on a value central to their lives. If that isn’t an educated electorate, I don’t know where we’ll find one.
Listening is one thing. Honoring is another. Notre Dame awarded President Obama an honorary degree, against the direct request of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. In a letter to the university, Mary Ann Glendon, Harvard Law School professor and USCCB consultant, quoted the bishops’ 2004 request that Catholic institutions “should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles (or give them) awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.”
Glendon was to receive the prestigious Laetare Medal and also to speak at commencement, but declined out of principle. The university had been portraying her speech as a balance to Obama’s, but Glendon said that:
“A commencement is supposed to be a joyous day for the graduates and their families. It is not the right place, nor is a brief acceptance speech the right vehicle, for engagement with the very serious problems raised by Notre Dame’s decision … to honor a prominent and uncompromising opponent of the church’s position on issues involving fundamental principles of justice.”
I deeply appreciate and agree with our president’s desire for civil discourse on difficult issues. But pro-choice advocates seemingly do not understand that this issue is about far more than policies or personal choices. If an unborn child is a life, abortion is literally a matter of life or death.
In an era when most universities and student bodies skew liberal, it was encouraging to see professors and young people passionately sticking up for a cause that is not politically correct and apparently not “open-minded.” I would never support anyone disrespectfully disrupting commencement itself, but I am proud of students who quietly made their stand clear via images of baby feet on their caps, or who gave up their hard-earned graduation ceremony to hold a prayer vigil instead.
More Americans are indeed pro-life today, including 70 percent of Republicans and 33 percent of Democrats, such as Sen. Bob Casey Jr., D-Pa., who introduced the Pregnant Women Support Act. During his speech, President Obama signaled he would “honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause.” We shall soon see if he takes the “fair-minded” path he spoke of and puts his weight behind pro-life Sen. Casey’s bill.
Andrea Sarvady (ASarvad@gmail.com) is a writer and educator specializing in counseling, and a married mother of three. Shaunti Feldhahn (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a conservative Christian author and speaker, and married mother of two children. Contact them at Universal Press, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, Mo. 64106.