President Obama gave the commencement address at Notre Dame this past weekend, following weeks of protest and disagreement from within the Catholic Church and beyond. Pro-life advocates were unhappy and pro-choice advocates saw this occasion as a step in the right direction.
Now that the occasion has come and gone there are several things worthy of comment concerning what the "real" issues were in this instance.
1. The real issue here was not “academic freedom.” It never was the issue even though the press spun it this way. Notre Dame is totally free to invite the president of the United States to deliver such a commencement address on such an occasion. This was never the real debate.
2. The granting of an doctoral degree, which is given as an honor if it means anything at all, was always the real issue here. The U. S. Catholic Bishops issued a statement in 2004 which said Catholic institutions “should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles.” Notre Dame’s administration acted in “defiance” of the clear and unambiguous moral teaching of the Catholic Church. No one can seriously deny this point. And the same U. S. Bishops statement in 2004 added that persons who defy the teaching of the Catholic Church on this type of moral issue “should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.” Can anyone doubt that this is what happened at Notre Dame?
3. Multitudes in the media acted as if the Catholic Church, and especially those bishops and priests who protested this degree, were the parties who were in the wrong in this instance. Former N.Y. Governor Mario Cuomo, a Catholic who has never supported the moral teaching of his own church on this issue, was even brought into the news cycle to pronounce his views on the matter. I wonder why? Answer: He never allowed Catholic moral teaching to impact his leadership in the 1980s and the media knows where to go to find Catholics who disagree with the moral teaching of the church.
When Cardinal Francis George, the leader of the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, spoke out against Notre Dame and said this was “an extreme embarrassment” for a Catholic university to confer such an honor on a strongly pro-choice president Chicago's mayoral brother, Bill Daley, called Cardinal George’s stance “an extreme embarrassment for Chicago Catholics.” This is the same Bill Daley who ran Al Gore’s presidential campaign and who is often directly involved in major political decision making in this city and the Democratic Party. Now he "speaks" for Catholics in Chicago.
During Lent we had to hear Bill Daley lecturing the Cardinal and the Catholic Church about what belongs to Caesar. I have to agree with columnist John Kass, of the Chicago Tribune, who wrote on Saturday: “All that loud political anger was aimed at a priest who stood for his faith, as he prepared for Easter. Though I’m not a Roman Catholic [the columnist is Greek Orthodox], I was hurt and personally sickened by the attacks against Cardinal George" I agree with John Kass. We do not need the state telling the church what is right and wrong anymore than we need the church seeking control of the state.
This is an instance where all Christians should stand as one for the defense of the lives of innocent unborn children. Who will defend these children if the church keeps its views silent? Surely not Catholics like the mayor and his brother, or governors like Mario Cuomo.
4. I wrote last week that the real hero in this debacle was Mary Ann Glendon, who turned down Notre Dame’s highest award to be given to her at the same ceremony. She did it without mocking or ridiculing anyone. She wrote a reasoned and clear letter to the president of the university and simply said, "No."
The university tried to find another Catholic who would accept this award and thankfully there were no takers. Maybe this says a lot more about the Catholic Church, and multitudes of faithful lay leaders who could have received this cherished award, than the press noticed. I feel quite sure that it does.
One thing we do know. Christians who believe their faith teaches them to oppose abortion will continue to be depicted as intolerant extremists by most in the media, at least for the foreseeable future. This should not stop people who believe abortion is morally wrong from saying so and thus from being consistent in how they live their faith at this crucial point. On the Day of Judgment I have a distinct impression that this will matter a whole lot more than the approval of mankind.