My younger son will be graduating from the University of Notre Dame in May. Last Friday, he informed me that President Obama will be giving the commencement speech and will be awarded an honorary degree. I was, frankly, stunned. The joyful event of our son’s graduation has now been overshadowed by a dark cloud. I am proud of my son and of all he achieved at Notre Dame, but I am ashamed of Notre Dame itself.
How can an institution that purports to be Catholic honor as a “doctor of law”¯literally a “teacher of law”¯a President who has made it very clear by word and deed that he intends to remove from the laws of this nation anything that defends unborn human life? Of course, there is more to Obama than his position on abortion and the life issues. There are things about him that anyone, Catholic or non-Catholic, can respect and admire. But can they justify overlooking his appalling stance on abortion?
Abortion is a defining issue of our time, in the way that slavery was in the mid-nineteenth century and segregation and racial discrimination were in the mid-twentieth century. Overlooking the pro-abortion views of a politician now would be analogous to overlooking pro-slavery or segregationist views in those eras. Would Notre Dame have invited a champion of segregation to be a commencement speaker in the 1960s, however brilliant or talented, however well-meaning in other ways and on other issues he or she may have been?
Some will say that there is no comparison between the issues of racial discrimination and abortion. From a Christian point of view, however, they are at root the same issue: the respect due to our fellow human beings simply as human beings. The lives of fifty million innocent human beings have been snuffed out in the United States since 1973, so it would be absurd to suggest that abortion is less serious an issue than racial discrimination.
The difference between the two issues lies not in their intrinsic moral gravity, but in the way that society views them. Virtually everyone agrees that racial discrimination is morally repugnant. There is a strong social consensus on that issue, whereas on abortion at present there is not. The social elites of this country are largely pro-choice, and being pro-choice is regarded by many as a mark of enlightenment. This, I think, has everything to do with why an institution like Notre Dame would never honor a champion of segregation, but would honor a champion of so-called abortion rights. What governs the moral reflexes of institutions like Notre Dame is not how things appear in the light of the gospel, but how they appear in the eyes of the social elites¯or to use more biblical language, how they appear to the world. St. Paul told us not be “conformed to this world,” but to put on the “mind of Christ.” It seems that the University of Notre Dame is conforming itself to the world.
While the news about President Obama’s honorary degree was a nasty shock, I am not actually surprised. Nor was I surprised when Fr. Jenkins did his ignominious retreat on the Vagina Monologues a few years ago. Why was I not surprised then, and why am I not surprised now? It has to do with an experience I had three years ago, when my wife and I were attending Junior Parents’ Weekend at Notre Dame for our older son. At that point Fr. Jenkins was still holding the line against showing the Monologues on campus. An article about the controversy had just appeared in the New York Times the previous day, and the tone of the article was distinctly anti-Jenkins. (It featured statements by Fr. Theodore Hesburgh critical of Jenkins’s stand¯a revolting act of perfidy if ever there was one.) After the banquet for the juniors and their parents, I approached Fr. Jenkins to congratulate him and encourage him. I planned to say, “The New York Times doesn’t like you. But hang in there; you’re doing the right thing.”
I got no further than the first sentence before Fr. Jenkins replied, “I didn’t think the article was that bad.” He sounded like he was trying to convince himself that the article’s treatment of him was not negative. I said no more to him but rejoined my wife and immediately said to her, “I think he is going to cave.” There was something about what he said and the way he said it that made me realize that Fr. Jenkins craved the good opinion of the New York Times and its readers. That is natural, of course. We all like to be thought well of and to be spoken well of. But it is a weakness nonetheless, and one that we have been warned about: “Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you . . . ”
That earlier betrayal by Notre Dame was caused by fear of the world’s disapproval. The present one is caused by desire for worldly status. There is a Faustian bargain being struck. President Obama has been feeling great heat on the life issues due to the courageous stands by many of the country’s Catholic bishops. Speaking at and being honored by Notre Dame is a way for him to insulate himself from that heat. In return, Notre Dame gets to seem important, by basking in the glory of a presidential visit. The university is willing to sacrifice the integrity of the Church’s moral witness on the central social-justice issue of our time to pursue its institutional ambitions.
Let us pray for the University of Notre Dame.
Stephen M. Barr, a member of the editorial advisory board of First Things , is professor of physics at the Bartol Research Institute.