Readers of these pages know that I have offered a number of considerations regarding Notre Dame's decision to invite President Barack Obama, and that my considerations have not always been in perfect agreement with those of other better known and more respected Catholic voices than my own - many of them thinkers for whom I have the highest esteem.
I stand by the substance and the validity - in the abstract - of all that I have said up to now.
Ambassador Mary Ann Glendon's impeccably reasoned and exquisitely tactful letter explaining her decision to decline the 2009 Laetare Medal, however, provides an occasion to review the particulars of the situation and to explore the opportunity of modifying the specific application of certain moral principles to the concrete case.
First, a series of observations, by way of (re)introduction to the discussion and in lieu of a gloss of Ambassador Glendon's letter:
- Ambassador Glendon makes it clear that she did not consider ND's decision to invite the President to be, in and of itself, ground for declining the award. I have argued this, against the opinions of many respected voices. Basically, I have suggested that the President is the President; to invite him may be ill-advised, but it is legitimate. I have further argued that the decision to award the President an honorary Doctor of Laws degree could be seen as a matter of course - the standard ND protocol for a presidential Commencement Day visit and speech. This case was plausible, until ND's press office started issuing statements that made their accusers' case for them. Essentially, ND's attempt at justifying the decision to invite the President and present him with an award was self-defeating in the concrete: it were not scandalous to invite the President of the United States to speak at Commencement exercises, simply because he is the President of the United States, nor were it scandalous to give him the award that, as a matter of consuetude, Presidents have received in recognition of their visits; given this President's views on abortion, however, the award, at least, is in manifest countervention of the bishops' statement on Catholics in Political Life. ND may at this point have decided to argue that the statement did not apply, because they were not honoring the man, but the office he holds and the thing that office represents, i.e., American popular unity and sovereign nationhood. ND decided, however, to go another route: ND decided to claim that the USCCB statement did not apply to Barack - more - they claimed to have consulted with canon lawyers, who advised them to this effect. This is absurd. Barack Obama is the most radically pro-abortion politician ever to stand in, let alone be elected to the Oval Office. If one thing is clear to everyone with eyes to see, it is that the USCCB directive was specifically designed to make sure that no Catholic institution would honor Barack Obama. ND's claim to the effect that they were honoring Barack Obama the man for being an "inspiring leader" and facing the national challenges, "with intelligence, courage and honesty," is and always has been tantamount to saying, "We do not care what the USCCB says." To be honest, I have often thought the same thing - as often as the bishops' conference has issued one of many, monumentally stupid statements over the years, and even sometimes when I just did not see eye to eye with them. The cause of life is so important, and the real threat that the President poses to real human lives, and the bishops' leadership on fundamental questions during the electoral cycle so laudable, that the signal ND sent in choosing to ignore the bishops' guidance on this basic question, must appear to us to be the wrong one.
- Fr. Jenkins then issued another statement to the effect that everything would be alright because Mary Ann Glendon, the renowned Harvard law professor and former Ambassador of the United States to the Holy See, would essentially be doing his dirty work for him. The Ambassador would be no man's pawn, and so she declined. She was right to do so. Fr. Jenkins tried to use her to cover his own mistaken decision and disastrous handling of the aftermath thereof. Though wiith infinitely more grace and gentleness, the Ambassador effectively said, "Neither will I whitewash your conscience, Fr. Jenkins, nor will I be a part of turning your students' commencement into a circus."
- Catholic bishops afraid to discipline the pro-abort politicians who receive Communion in their cathedrals on Sunday only to go and vote blithely to fund the mass destruction of innocent life on Monday, took cheap shots at a college president who is not in their jurisdiction, far exceeding the admonition of that priest's local ordinary. The President of the United States, in the midst of all this, asked - and obtained - the covering of the Holy Name, the seal of Georgetown University, the oldest traditionally Catholic institution of higher learning in the U.S., showing his willingness to use and manipulate, not to mention his administration's understanding and appreciation of the significance of Catholic symbolism, as well as Georgetown's willingnesss to be used and manipulated.
Finally, some words of recognition need to go to Bishop John D'Arcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend, who has offered excellent leadership throughout this sad episode. His original statement announcing his intention to be elsewhere on Commencement Day was proof positive that strength and nuance are not mutually exclusive. His later correction of Fr. Jenkins was timely, forthright and dignified.
If only everyone involved had been more inclined to follow his example.