Put aside, for just a moment, the following two facts:
- Benedict XVI is not only the Successor to Peter and Vicar of God on Earth; he is also the greatest theologian of the post-Conciliar period.
- Barack Obama is not only the President of the United States; he is the person with the most radically pro-abortion views ever to stand in, let alone be elected to, the White House.
Now, consider the following:
- Notre Dame University has a long tradition of inviting newly-elected presidents to give Commencement addresses.
- There is an even longer tradition of making French Chiefs of State honorary Canons of the Basilica of St. John Lateran.
- The order of worship in the basilica omnium ecclesiarum terrarum caput et mater is rather more important than the integrity of an ND honorary degree
Now, if Sarkozy, who is not only a supporter of the permissive abortion status quo in France, but also a public adulterer, can become an honorary canon of Rome's cathedral basilica, then the President of the United States may receive an honorary doctorate from ND without the prestige of the award or the bestower of it suffering in the least.
This is the case because it is a traditional honor bestowed on the occupant of an office, and in no wise communicates approval of the officeholder's behavior, public or private.
Now, just as it would have been "bad form" for the Pope not to make Sarkozy an honorary canon on his first official visit to the Vatican, so would it have been for ND to refuse Obama the honorary degree on his first Commencement Day visit.
One may say the invitation was out of order - I have always said I would have skipped it this year, if I were Fr. Jenkins - but if one accepts the propriety of the invitation, then it is really unreasonable to begrudge Obama the award.
There are those concerned with a Catholic university's giving the most radically pro-abortion President of the United States ever elected in the history of the nation a platform from which to advance his pro-abortion agenda. This is unrealistic. I do not say this out of a belief that Pres. Obama is too well-mannered for it; I say it out of the knowledge that to do so would be political suicide, and his handlers are too politically savvy to let that happen.
The Public Outcry: from Hyde Park to the killing fields
Many Catholic bishops and public intellectuals have been extremely vocal in their criticism of Fr. Jenkins. Much of that criticism has in fact been condemnation, of ND's president, of the university over which he presides, and of the person he has invited.
There are interesting parallels with an earlier incident involving a head of state, a prestigious university, and a controversial invitation of the latter to the former.
About a year ago, a small group of disgruntled university professors led a somewhat larger, but still tiny (as a portion of the whole student body) group of radical, ideologically committed and agenda-driven students in raising cain over the invitation of Pope Benedict XVI to give the celebratory lecture at the Solemn Academic Act opening the academic year at Rome's La Sapienza University - this is the rough cultural equivalent of Commencement Day.
They succeeded in making so much noise, that the Pope decided not to go, but the overwhelming majority of public opinion in Italy and throughout Europe was against them. The rector (president) of the university read the Holy Father's entire lecture into the acts of the event, and the radical anti-clerical presence in Italian political culture did itself serious and lasting damage.
In military parlance, they rendered their strategic goals unreachable in a short-sighted attempt to press a tactical advantage. They took the ground, as it were, but lost the field as a result.
In the case of the la sapienza professors and students, the loss was in public sympathy and prestige.
In the case of Catholic bishops and public intellectuals, the best they can possibly hope for is that ND's president, Fr. Jenkins CSC, will dis-invite the President, or that the President of the United States will voluntarily decide to withdraw his acceptance of the invitation - but the losses will be infinitely greater.
Suppose they succeed: then what? They will have succeeded in embarrassing ND and her president, and in making the President appear gracious in the face of rabid hatred and scorn.
They will also have succeeded - indeed they may already have succeeded - in burning all bridges with the White House. This is the loss of the field, the result of which will be a seriously diminished capacity on the part of the bishops (whether singly or corporately) to press for enforecement of conscience exemptions and institutional autonomy, for the rights of Catholic schools to teach Catholic doctrine in social matters and maintain hiring and disciplinary practices in line with the Catholic vision of the human person and the true good of society.
Said shortly, the outcry has only the slimmest of chances to keep the POTUS off the dais on ND's Commencement Day, 2009, while it has already placed Catholic health care facilities and schools at greater risk of government intrusion and prevarication, while simultaneously reducing the bishops' ability effectively to champion the rights and immunities of the Church and her organs.
In sum, the end result of the public outcry is going to be a Church with a weakened ability to defend human life from conception to natural death.
Now consider that there are real lives at stake in this fight, not public sympathies.