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The University of Notre Dame and President Obama

Bishop's Column published on the Orlando Diocese website ( www.orlandodiocese.org )

Bishop Thomas Wenski
Bishop of the Diocese of Orlando, FL

April 1, 2009

In the Church, the greatest title or “honor” anyone can receive is that of the name “Christian”. That title is conferred in Baptism. To be called Christian is both a gift and a task: we must aspire to become what we already are in Baptism; namely, Children of God and coheirs with Christ to the promises of the Kingdom.

This is our greatest dignity – but the Church does often honor her members – and occasionally some who are not among her members – with titles and recognitions that, while not as significant as the name “Christian” do serve to illuminate for us the contributions of those whose actions merit admiration or emulation.

This explains the consternation, confusion and indignation many have felt in learning that the University of Notre Dame, considered by many to be America’s flagship Catholic University, will grant an honorary doctorate to President Obama when he visits the campus this May to speak at commencement exercises.

As a state legislator in Illinois and later a US senator, Mr. Obama advocated for some of the most extremist “pro-choice” positions. And, before the completion of his first 100 days in office, President Obama has already expanded federal funding for abortion, directed tax payer funded support for embryonic stem cell research which requires the destruction of living human beings, and has challenged conscience protection provisions that allow health care workers and institutions to refuse to participate in abortions and other procedures that violate their ethical or religious views.

An honorary degree – even when conferred by an institution that self consciously identifies itself as Catholic – is not strictly speaking an ecclesiastical honor. However, an institution that identifies itself as Catholic should represent and witness to Catholic teachings and values. For such an institution to honor someone whose own values or actions contradict these teachings and values in substantial ways does send, to say the least, a mixed message especially at a time when these teachings are increasingly challenged and attacked in the public square. For this reason, the US bishops have reiterated over the years that "The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions." Catholics in Political Life.

That Mr. Obama speaks at Notre-Dame is not really the issue – he is President of the United States, wherever he goes he brings with him the dignity of his office; and, as a politician, he is quick to seize any opportunity for a “bully pulpit”. That Notre-Dame would invite him and would grant him at the same time an honorary degree, however, is the issue; and a very problematic one, for it reveals that Notre-Dame (at least in its Administration and Board) has forgotten what it means to be Catholic. As Bishop John D’Arcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend said, “Notre-Dame must ask itself whether if by this decision it has chosen prestige over truth.”

Abortion is not simply a “Catholic” issue nor is the humanity of the unborn child (and its right to life and dignity) just a matter of sectarian doctrine. The defense of human life at its most vulnerable stages, at the beginning and end of life, has become the human rights struggle of our time. That being said, as members of civil society and as citizens, Catholics should participate in the public square in ways that are coherent with our teachings and beliefs. In this way, we offer our witness to the truth about human life and dignity – a truth that is not subjectively “constructed” but is objectively grounded in human reason and divine revelation.

Our participation requires that to promote the common good we engage and sometimes collaborate with people who do not share our views and with whom we have profound disagreements. Popes have done this since Leo the Great met with Attila the Hun in an attempt to prevent the sacking of Rome. Yet, as Catholic journalist, John L. Allen observed, “how to engage public figures who hold pro-choice views without seeming to endorse, or wink at, those views is critically important”.

Last year, in Washington, D.C., Pope Benedict addressed Catholic educators, including university presidents. He said "to justify positions that contradict the faith and teaching of the Church would obstruct or even betray the university's identity and mission". Father Jenkins, Notre-Dame’s president, must have nodded off during the Pope’s speech.

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