The Ghost of Commencement Past

Notre Dame’s defense against charges of scandal surrounding President Obama’s 2009 commencement address is belied by its refusal to extend the same honor to President Trump.

NOTRE DAME, IN —  By declining to invite President Trump to deliver this year’s commencement address after the 2009 invitation to President Obama, the nation’s most pro-abortion president, Father Jenkins scuttled his defense against charges of scandal in the Obama affair.

Notre Dame’s reputation as a Catholic university was seriously damaged by Father Jenkins’s 2009 decision to honor President Obama, the Church’s most formidable adversary on abortion. Father Jenkins dismissed the tsunami of protests as misplaced. Conferring an honorary degree on President Obama, he insisted, had no bearing on Notre Dame’s pro-life commitment, for the university was honoring Obama because of his office, not his policies. That, he said, was Notre Dame’s tradition.

Now Father Jenkins has blown that transparently flimsy cover by bypassing the office because of the new officeholder, President Trump. The 2009 scandal of the nation’s most prominent Catholic university honoring the nations’s most prominent abortion advocate is once again thrown into bold relief.

Notre Dame’s then bishop, the late Most Rev. John D. D’Arcy, had it right: Notre Dame “chose prestige over truth.”

In more detail, here’s why this combination of honoring Obama and stiff-arming Trump is so lethal.

Obama and the 2009 Commencement

We have discussed the 2009 Obama episode in detail in prior bulletins. Here are the principal lowlights:

  • By honoring Obama, Notre Dame scorned the injunction of the United States bishops that “Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles” (bold in original).
  • Bishop D’Arcy reacted with a lacerating denunciation of Notre Dame’s action and refused to attend the commencement.
  • Eighty-two other cardinals, archbishops, and bishops  joined   Bishop D’Arcy in censuring Notre Dame. When has that ever happened at a Catholic university.
  • Former Ambassador to the Vatican and distinguished Catholic educator Mary Ann Glendon took back  her acceptance of Notre Dame’s highest award, the Laetare Medal, because, she said,  she did not want to be on the platform when Obama was honored “in disregard of the U.S. bishops’ express request of 2004 that Catholic institutions ‘should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles.'”
  • A student-organized rally and Mass on the quad in protest of Obama’s appearance drew thousands, including Bishop D’Arcy, while a battalion of pro-life demonstrators marching on the fringe of the campus attracted national attention.
  • So did the spectacle of police hauling scores of these pro-life demonstrators off to jail.The image of an elderly priest being carried to a police wagon lingers. Notre Dame’s sponsoring the criminal prosecution of the “ND88” drew harsh criticism from pro-life sources until Notre Dame finally gave it up after two years. In the meantime, Sycamore Trust had disclosed that the university had previously practiced a “catch and release” policy for anti-war and pro-gay trespassing demonstrators. No such mercy for the pro-life ND88, who, after all, had rained on the commencement parade.

With the good guys arrested and the most pro-abortion president in history having been embraced by Father Jenkins and exuberantly cheered in the stadium, Notre Dame’s pro-life reputation looked tattered indeed.

But that’s not the way Father Jenkins saw it. “For all the controversy,” he said, “it had been a successful day.” He would “do it again,” he declared. He had followed Notre Dame’s “tradition of inviting presidents to be commencement speakers and receive honorary degrees” because, he said:

It’s important not to be afraid of controversy.

Trump, Controversy, and the Hypocrisy Factor

Shortly after Trump was elected and in the midst of the anti-Trump demonstrations and petitions by thousands of Notre Dame faculty, staff, and students that we have catalogued, Father Jenkins said he was unsure whether he would invite the President to deliver the commencement address. The Obama commencement, he said, had been “ a bit of a political circus” and his “concern a little bit is that, should [Trump] come, it may be even more of a circus.”

Now we have Father Jenkins’s decision to invite Vice President Pence, not President Trump.

(We should perhaps note that a university spokesperson declined  to confirm that Trump had not been invited,  saying it would be “rude” to do so. To be sure.  The inference is obvious and accords with any reasonable view of the circumstances. It is implausible in the extreme to think that Father Jenkins would have been willing to face down the passionate protests of thousands of faculty and students.)

As the news reports show, the significance is not who was chosen but who was not. The Washington Post and the New York Times chortled, “Pence, not Trump, To Give Notre Dame Commencement Address.”

So much for Father Jenkins’s 2009 protestations that Notre Dame honors all presidents at commencements because of their office, not their policies, and his declaration that controversy should not stand in the way. Donald Trump holds that office. Father Jenkins would face down controversy again for the pro-abortion president Barack Obama but will not for the pro-life and pro-religious liberty president Donald Trump.

If Hilary Clinton had won, on the other hand, “tradition” doubtless would have required that she be the honored speaker. To be sure, she is, if anything, even more resolutely pro-abortion and anti-religious freedom than Obama, but once again we would be told that honoring her doesn’t mean that Notre Dame is anything but robustly pro-life. She would, after all, be the President! (Like, say, Trump.)

Finally, there is Father Jenkins’s decision to award the Laetare Medal last year to Vice President Biden to consider. The university calls the Laetare Medal the nation’s “oldest and most prestigious award” given to a Catholic “in recognition of outstanding service to the Church and society.”  Biden is pro-choice and personally presides over same-sex marriages. There was no tradition for Father Jenkins to invoke, nor any “outstanding service to the Church” to take its place. Nothing, that is, to cite in mitigation of the palpable scandal.

There is more than a whiff of hypocrisy wafting down the years from 2009.

A Welcome Interment – The Presidential “Tradition”

At least we can give a disrespectful burial to the alleged “tradition” of honoring presidents no matter what. We say alleged because President Clinton was not honored, likely because of his pro-choice stance, an inconvenient fact Father Jenkins did not mention.

This misbegotten policy seems born of Notre Dame’s yearning for public applause, a yearning blind to the fact that outside South Bend these presidential drop-ins draw, if anything, shrugs, not cheers. As surely others, at least, recognize, they are political opportunities for politicians, not seals of presidential approval.

But much worse, this alleged tradition gave Father Jenkins something to say, however unpersuasive, in defense of his Obama decision, and it has now led to the embarrassment of a public thumb in the eye of the President of the United States. No doubt  Trump is willing for Pence to appear — it is good politics in a key state in which both the Catholic vote and Notre Dame are important — but the plain if implicit public rebuff by Notre Dame remains.

Had Father Jenkins acknowledged that honoring Obama was a mistake and scrapped the “tradition” that ostensibly led to it, he could have avoided the Trump dilemma. Absent the Obama precedent and Father Jenkins’s insistence that it had been a “success” despite the tumult, that he would “do it again,” and that Notre Dame should “not be afraid of controversy,” he could not have been reasonably faulted for waiting to see how the Trump administration unfolds rather than turning the commencement once again into a political battlefield.

Colossal and unrepented mistakes exact their toll in due course. The stab at damage control by inviting Pence is scarcely inspired. He is assuredly a decent man, the first Vice President to be honored, a former governor of Notre Dame’s home state, and, happily, pro-life and pro-religious liberty. Still, Democrats are naturally not thrilled, as reaction on campus illustrates; and as our correspondence shows, Trump supporters are unlikely to be pacified by the message that, while Trump is persona non grata at Notre Dame, at least Pence is not. The Pence invitation, after all, comes in the wake of  widespread condemnation of Trump by faculty, staff, and students and denunciation by Father Jenkins himself for having engaged in “churlish, insulting political theater.”

From now on, let us hope Notre Dame honors only people who deserve to be honored because they personify Catholic values in an exemplary way, not simply because they hold high positions and may be thought to burnish the university’s reputation by their appearance.

Quote of the Day

We’re a faith-based institution in a faith that is white, male and has a very strong hierarchy. — Pamela Young

Pamela Young, Notre Dame’s first Director for Academic Diversity and Inclusion joins Eric Love, University’s Director of Staff Diversity and Inclusion and Kellyanne Conway caricaturist.

Online Discussion

On Wednesday, March 22 (7:30-8:45 PM EDT), Bill Dempsey, Sycamore Trust President, will discuss Fr. Jenkins’s decision to break with tradition by not inviting President Trump to deliver this year’s commencement address at Notre Dame – a decision which belies his defense against charges of scandal caused by President Obama’s 2009 commencement address. Click below to register.

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