May 17, 2009
Opinion: Who Cares About Notre Dame’s Graduation?
If you're reading this, you're likely one of the few people who know about the controversy over President Obama's commencement speech at Notre Dame.
According to a Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life poll, 52 percent of Americans had heard nothing about "criticism of Notre Dame for abortion opponents for inviting Barak Obama to speak at its graduation and receive an honorary degree." Among Catholics who attend mass every week, one-third had heard "nothing at all" and another third had heard "very little."
The criticism of Notre Dame is not a grassroots movement. It is but the recent incident in an elite debate over the nature of Catholic higher education. It is a debate that is difficult to navigate because of the complexities of Catholic social teaching and intellectual history.
At most (but not all) Catholic colleges and universities, there are no religious restrictions. People of all faiths can attend, work, and teach. There is a Catholic ethos and a commitment to Catholic morality and values. It is telling that opposition to Obama is not about his own faith - even among opponents would be acceptable for Notre Dame to honor someone who does not recognize the authority of the Catholic Church so long as the person supports the Church's moral teaching.
This has raised the question - what is "Catholic" about Catholic higher education?
This debate has become more heated, with groups like the Cardinal Newman Society pressuring Catholic colleges to become more distinctly Catholic, which often means orthodoxy in religious courses and an elimination of groups on campus that support abortion, gay rights, birth control, and other positions antithetical to (some) Catholic moral teaching.
Catholic social teaching, however, is broader than just abortion and sexuality. It does not fit neatly into the red and blue boxes of American politics. Supporters of Obama's invitation note the importance of social justice, peace (including opposition to Iraq War), and other causes where Obama's positions are arguably more in line with Catholic morality than those held by President George W. Bush. Notre Dame has said that it is honoring Obama for his "leadership," not his politics. For Catholics on the left, such as Joe Feuerherd of the National Catholic Reporter, the flap over Obama is a hypocritical political attack by the right. For other groups, like Catholics United, it is an effort to politicize and factionalize Catholics.
The Notre Dame controversy is unlikely to politicize Catholics - few know or care. The most likely outcome will be that, like nearly all commencement addresses, no one in the audience will remember what was said.
Read petition against Obama's speech here. Read counter-petition in favor here.
Tobin Grant is an associate professor of political science at Southern Illinois University - Carbondale. Christianity Today interviewed Notre Dame visiting professor Francis Beckwith over the debate.