President Biden Dodges President Jenkins


US President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden return to the White House from a weekend at Camp David in Washington, DC, USA, May 23, 2021 [Notre Dame’s Commencement Weekend] [Photo via Newscom]
President @JoeBiden averted pro-life backlash but embarrassed @NotreDame by his last-minute rejection of Father Jenkins’s wrong-headed invitation to be Commencement speaker. #GoCatholicND Click To Tweet

Most readers know that President Biden was not this year’s Notre Dame Commencement speaker, but many may not know that Father Jenkins did invite him. The White House disclosed the invitation, dissembling as to the reason, while the University refused to comment. 

What follows is an account of this episode and the dozens of reports attributing Biden’s dodging the invitation to concern about a pro-life backlash, a concern raised by Sycamore Trust’s Open Letter to Father Jenkins signed by almost 5,000 alumni, parents, students, and others of the Notre Dame family. 

Sycamore Trust’s Open Letter to Father Jenkins

Upon learning from an interview of Father Jenkins that he was considering inviting Biden to be Notre Dame’s 2021 Commencement speaker, we published a series of bulletins describing Biden’s hostility to fundamental Church teachings. See here and here and here. And we invited Notre Dame alumni and others of the Notre Dame family to sign an Open Letter to Father Jenkins urging him not to issue the invitation. 

The letter began with the declaration by the nation’s bishops that

Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles.

“Biden is such a person writ large,” our letter continued. 

He rejects Church teachings on abortion, marriage, sex and gender and is hostile to religious liberty. He embraces the most pro-abortion and anti-religious liberty public policy program in history. The case against honoring him is immeasurably stronger than it was against honoring President Obama, an action that alienated countless Catholics and brought upon Notre Dame the harsh criticism of 83 cardinals, archbishops and bishops.

Nearly 5,000 alumni, parents, students and others signed. 

A Different Commencement Speaker 

After a very long delay, the University announced the Commencement speaker, and it was not Biden. 

In the past, Notre Dame announced its speaker in March, occasionally in early April. This time, March passed, and then April, with no word but much speculation about Biden. 

Finally, a scant twelve days before Commencement, the University announced that the speaker would be Jimmy Dunne, a financier and Notre Dame trustee. 

Biden’s absence was “no loss,” reported Wall Street Journal editor-at-large Gerard Baker, who was at Notre Dame for the graduation of his daughter. 

Jimmy Dunne, a former principal of investment bank Sandler O’Neill, talked movingly about what he had learned of service and duty that day when almost half of his staff were killed in the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Then Carla Harris, a top executive at Morgan Stanley and perhaps the most successful black woman on Wall Street, gave a spellbinding oration on her receipt of the university’s Laetare Medal that shook down the very thunder from the sky in its inspirational élan.

The Biden Invitation, its Declination, and White House Dissembling

While the university (understandingly) refused to say whether Biden had been invited, the White House confirmed that he had been but was unable to accept because of “scheduling.”

Fake news.

Biden’s official schedule for Commencement weekend put him and his wife at Camp David with nothing on the agenda, as a number of reports about his absence noted. See, e.g., here and here.

Almost all of the accounts of this episode attributed Biden’s absence to White House worry about a pro-life “uproar” or “backlash,” and the Sycamore Trust Open Letter was often identified as the cause.

We have collected in the Appendix links to dozens of these reports. Here are several headline examples:

Certainly, Biden’s appearance would have been politically risky. The Sycamore Trust Open Letter presaged a replay of the outcry against Notre Dame’s honoring of President Obama in 2009, when 83 cardinals, archbishops and bishops censured Notre Dame, students organized a rally and Mass on campus attended by Notre Dame’s bishop, and photos of pro-life demonstrators being hauled off in police wagons appeared in newspapers across the country. 

If Biden’s decision makes sense, what of Father Jenkins’s?

The Invitation – Scandal and More

Father Jenkins’s decision to honor Biden is a good deal more objectionable even than was his decision to honor President Obama. Biden’s opposition to Church teaching is more wide-ranging and intense than was Obama’s. More, Biden is a Catholic, and he won’t let anyone forget it. (“The next Republican that tells me I’m not religious I’m going to shove my rosary beads down their throat.”)

The invitation, accordingly, signaled not only that Notre Dame does not view the Church’s teachings on abortion, marriage, sex and gender with the gravity the Church assigns to them, but also that the Biden brand of Catholicism, in which one can actively oppose those teachings and remain a faithful Catholic, is perfectly all right with Notre Dame.

And if it is all right with the leading Catholic university in the country, why not with everyone?

But there is more, for this episode sheds light on the root cause of the weakening Catholic identity of Notre Dame in recent years – the sharp decline in Catholic representation on the faculty that has been Sycamore’s principal focus since its founding.

It is unlikely in the extreme that Father Jenkins would have invited Biden if he had thought a large body of faculty would object.

But he had had nothing to fear. Only a relative handful of faculty stood against the Obama invitation, and while surely there were more that disapproved but kept quiet about it, there is no reason whatever to think there would have been more vocal opposition to Biden than to Obama.

More broadly, it is instructive to consider Professor Emeritus Alfred J. Freddoso’s explanation of why he was unsurprised at Father Jenkins’s invitation to Obama. What he wrote then in his introduction to the late Professor Charles Rice’s book “What Happened to Notre Dame” is as apt today as it was then. 

Over the past 30 years, Dr. Freddoso wrote, he had witnessed

[t]he University’s steadily intensifying and often frustrated aspiration to be regarded as a major player on the American educational scene; …the easy transition from a faculty dominated by ‘progressive’ Catholics to a faculty more and more dominated by people ignorant of the intellectual ramifications of the Catholic faith; the concomitant marginalization of faculty who professed allegiance to, or even admiration for, the present day successors of the apostles; and a succession of high level administrators lacking in a philosophical vision of Catholic higher education and intent on diffusing throughout the University a pragmatic mentality at once both bureaucratic and corporate.


In 2009, Notre Dame’s bishop, the late Most Rev. John M. Darcy, charged Father Jenkins and his associates with choosing “prestige over truth.” Twelve years later, they tried it again – but failed. The White House, not wanting to be thought to have been passed over by Notre Dame, let it be known that it was Biden who did the passing over. Instead of prestige, the administration reaped embarrassment and the disrespect of Catholics who cherish the Church’s teachings on life, marriage, and religious liberty.


Reports of Biden’s non-appearance

Pro-abortion “Catholic” Biden turns down Notre Dame commencement speech invitation (LifeSiteNews)

See also Florida Catholic, Boston Pilot, Deacon’s Bench, Catholic News Agency

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