Notre Dame president considers breaking with more than a half-century tradition of presidential Commencement speeches.
NOTRE DAME, IN — In a recent interview, Father John Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president, indicated he may not invite president-elect Trump to speak and receive an honorary degree at the 2017 commencement. He said he will decide “sometime during the spring semester.” His statement has received a good deal of attention, from the South Bend Tribune and Washington Times to Teen Vogue. There will be a great deal more if Father Jenkins does not invite Trump, for this would break the Notre Dame tradition beginning with President Eisenhower that Father Jenkins cited in defense of his honoring President Obama at the 2009 commencement. In his interview, Father Jenkins said the 2009 commencement had been “a bit of a circus” and that there “might be even more of a circus” with Trump; that “[commencement] day is for graduates and their parents”; and that he didn’t “want to make the focus something else.” The difficulty for Father Jenkins is that this is precisely what he did in honoring President Obama. More, it is what he said he would do again. Eighty-three cardinals, archbishops and bishops denounced Father Jenkins’s decision. Protesting students organized a rally and Mass on the quad that was attended by some 3,000 people, including the late Bishop John M. D’Arcy. A number of seniors and their families and friends held their own graduation ceremony at the Grotto. Pro-life demonstrators who walked on the fringe of university property were hauled off to jail and prosecuted at Notre Dame’s behest for two years before this misbegotten case was finally dismissed. Nevertheless, almost a year later Father Jenkins declared that he was “comfortable” with his decision and “would do it again.” This is why it would be awkward, to put it conservatively, for Father Jenkins to cite the likelihood of protests as reason for breaking what he referred to in 2009 as Notre Dame’s “long-standing tradition of inviting the current U.S. president to speak at the University.” The case would be different had Father Jenkins conceded that he had been wrong, after all, in honoring one of the Church’s most formidable adversaries on abortion (and later on religious liberty) – that he should have paid attention to the strong opposition of his bishop and eighty-two of his fellow bishops and to the policy of the bishops’ conference against this sort of action – that he should have been “conscious that that day is for graduates and their parents.” In fact, despite Father Jenkins’s protestations, the Obama episode shows the infirmity of Notre Dame’s supposed tradition of honoring presidents no matter how pernicious their policies may be. (We say “supposed” because President Clinton was not invited, presumably because he was pro-choice – the truly relevant precedent unmentioned by Father Jenkins.) But instead of drawing back from this practice, Father Jenkins has extended it by conferring the Laetare Medal on Vice President Joe Biden simply for keeping a civil tongue in his head most of the time in spite of his using it to defend Roe v. Wade and to marry a same-sex couple. (Cf. Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady: “The French don’t care what they do actually, as long as they pronounce it properly.”) Notre Dame would do well to consider reserving its honors for people that deserve them on grounds other than their offices. The reason Notre Dame has been profligate in honoring holders of high office (at least in Obama’s and Biden’s cases) seems plainly to be a yearning for bragging rights. That might be innocent enough, if fanciful and scarcely lofty, but not when, as in Obama’s case, carried to the point of choosing “prestige over truth,” in Bishop D’Arcy’s words. In any event, the Obama affair and what Father Jenkins has said about it is a matter of record; and if, after that, Father Jenkins does not invite President-elect Trump, his decision will shed additional light on the Obama affair and what this all means respecting Notre Dame as a Catholic university. It will be time enough then to explore this matter more fully.