Thursday, March 26, 2009

Reflections on ND's Invitation to President Obama

The reaction to the University of Notre Dame's decision to invite the President of the United States to speak at their May 17th Commencement ceremony has seen a number of more or less important issues raised for public debate. Some of this has been good and healthy. Some of it has not.

Some of the issues raised in the wake of the decision are more important than others, and some of the more important ones are very important, indeed.

The decision to invite the President of the United States to speak at the Commencement events was, however, and remains in itself, entirely unexceptionable.

If I were the president of Our Lady's university, I would not have issued the invitation. That I or anyone else would have done differently in his position is in no wise - absolutely no wise - a criticism even of the opportunity of ND's decision to issue the invitiation; much less is it a moral indictment of the decision or of the person - real and juridical - who made it.

The President of the United States is both Head of State and Head of Government. As Chief of State, the President's presence at and participation in an important event in the life of an institution cannot but be an honor for it, for any institution, including a leading Catholic institution of higher learning, and even when the certain of the policies and legislative agenda of the President as chief of government are incompatible with the ethos of the institution.

So much for the propriety of the invitation, sic et simpliciter.

If things had been left at that, i.e. a simple invitation, such as the University issued to presidents Eisenhower, Carter, Reagan, G.H.W. Bush and G.W. Bush, then perhaps the issue would not have erupted so violently.

Nine presidents (John Kennedy received his as Senator in 1950) have received honorary degrees, and it seems that the six who delivered Commencement addresses received their degrees as part of Commencement exercises.

On this reading, then, to withold the degree would have been very bad form, indeed.

The Local Ordinary, Bishop D'Arcy, has decided not to attend ND's Commencement ceremony, the first Commencement in 25 years that he will miss.

Bishop D'Arcy has issued a statmeent explaining his decision.

The bishop's statement is excellent, and puts just the right touch on things: he says, in essence, that his decision not to attend is meant neither as an insult to the President, nor as a criticism of the University's decision to invite him (some bloggers for whom I have great respect have suggested that the Bishop D'Arcy implied criticism in inviting Fr. Jenkins, CSC, to consider whether he chose prestige over truth - I do not pretend to know the mind of the bishop, but I do know enough about his care and thoughtfulness to conclude that his letter need not be read as implicitly critical - it may be simply and plainly pastoral - university presidents are under a perpetual temptation to precisely the thing about which +D'Arcy invites the university to reflect prayerfully), but as a clear sign of the Church's opposition to certain political and legislative goals of the nation's Chief Executive.

Bishop D'Arcy says he has spoken with and encouraged Ambassador Mary Ann Glendon to accept the Laetare medal, and to use the occasion to teach. This shows us not only what Thomas Peters has already noted, i.e. that the bishop is operating an important distinction between his attendance and the ambassador's; it also shows us that Bishop D'Arcy does not believe the University to be morally compromised. If it were, he could not conscientiously encourage Ambassador Glendon to participate.

I applaud Bishop D'Arcy's decision, and I support the movement for a prayer vigil on Commencement Day. It ought to be prayerful, reverent (mostly silent and candle-lit) witness to the truths we can know about the human person through the right use of our reason, truths perfectly revealed and realized in the One, who is the Word of God in human flesh.


Clayton said...

The concept of an honorary degree is a bit puzzling to me. If it is simply a matter of form to give them to commencement speakers, but bears no particular meaning or honor, then perhaps it would be best to dispense with this custom.

I suspect I am not alone in not understanding the protocol involved, or what an honorary degree means. Which leads to my primary critique: actual decision aside, the University has not paid sufficient attention to public relations or used the opportunity to inform others about what an honorary degree means, who has received it in the past, and why Notre Dame has decided that an honorary degree was appropriate. If, as his spokesman Dennis Brown said, the negative reaction to the decision was anticipated, then why no effort to get in front of the issue? It gives the impression of callousness rather than intellectual charity.

In the Church today, and in communication in general, it's a mistake to assume that you are speaking the same language as others, that you have a common foundation of catechesis and knowledge, and that your intentions are somehow inchoately clear to others. And, in some sad cases, it is also a mistake to assume that you share an adherence to certain non-negotiable matters of faith and morals.

Lazy Disciple said...

Dear Clayton,

You raise a number of very good points in your discussion. I agree with you that ND needed to get in front of the issue, and failed in this regard.

On the other hand, the practicalities of pro-activity in the matter are extremely complicated and delicate: there is a Latin maxim, excusatio non petita accusatio manifesta - an unsolicited explanation is as good as an open accusation.

I also think Fr. Jenkins' statement to the effect that they are honoring the president's leadership could have been worded better.

One of the points I was trying to make, without making a point of it, if you will, was that there are people who should know what the honorary degree is, who either do not know, or are pretending not to know, and commenting accordingly in public.

I think a forthright explanation from the folks who know better would have done a lot more to dispel the misconceptions and exaggerated estimations of importance of the honor, than did all the railing and chest thumping.


Greta said...

Of course the easiest way to avoid the controversy was for Jenkins to pick up the phone and call Bishop D'Arcy and gain his blessing. With the blessing behind him, Jenkins would ot have had any controversy at all. But he knew the Bishop would not hear his reasons and agree in any way shape or form and he knew it would create controversy. So the decision was to do it on a Friday right before spring break, and to have the announcement of Ambassador Mary Ann Glendon ready and waiting for just after Obama release. Then call the Bishop.

Just as Bishop Olmsted clearly stated this was public act of disobedience to the Bishops of the US. I do not think he should stay as president of a Catholic University especially one as visible as ND. He has to be removed or even fewer will pay any attention to the Bishops and the slide of Church authority over its own continues.