KERNS: Notre Dame: don’t fear Obama



Bryan Kerns

Imagine what would happen if the president of Villanova University announced that Barack Obama would be the principal speaker at the University’s Commencement exercises this year.

Each year in August, mere days after classes have begun, an e-mail from the Office of the President is sent to the entire University community soliciting nominations for the recipients of honorary degrees and the commencement speaker. I have no doubt that among the responses, at least one had Obama’s name on it.

Unfortunately for Villanova – or fortunately, depending on how you look at it – the president of the United States would have to turn down Villanova, since he had a prior commitment with the University of Notre Dame whose commencement is scheduled for the same day.

The maelstrom of criticism directed at Villanova had such a thing occurred would undoubtedly have been huge. The criticism directed at Notre Dame has been relentless.

I will not defend the president’s positions on abortion. Nor will I defend George W. Bush’s positions on the Iraq war or the death penalty or torture during his presidency; he was given an honorary degree by Notre Dame in 2001. If people are willing to be so critical of the decision to give Obama an honorary degree, perhaps the University ought to consider rescinding the degree given to Bush.

One phrase, spoken by a giant of American Catholic higher education, sums up the debate currently underway over Obama speaking at Notre Dame’s commencement. “The University is where the Church does its thinking,” he says. The speaker was Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., president of Notre Dame from 1952 to 1987. In many ways the path paved for Obama was paved by men like Hesburgh, who served on the Civil Rights Commission in the 1950s.

That quotation recognizes that the Church doesn’t exist in a vacuum – the kingdom has not yet come. As our own university president said to me in an interview in late 2007, just because we’re a Catholic university doesn’t mean that there are things we can’t talk about. Students need to be prepared to discuss the issues of our times. It happens to be the case that Obama’s stance is in opposition to the Church on a number of them.

Given that, it is important to remain aware of what Hesburgh said in response to the outcry over Obama’s invitation: “No speaker who has ever come to Notre Dame has changed the University. We are who we are. But, quite often, the very fact of being here has changed the speaker.”

Hesburgh’s point is well-taken – Obama’s presence will not somehow cause the crucifixes in the classrooms at Notre Dame to fall from the walls, and the Pope will not suddenly excommunicate everyone at Notre Dame and revoke the institution’s right to be called a Catholic university.

It is also unlikely that Obama will suddenly reverse his positions on the issues that most concern the Church because, after all, you stay with the girl that brought you – and his pro-choice stance certainly brought Obama to the dance.

Without a mutual understanding to discuss the Church’s contested issues, nothing can happen.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the Archbishop of Galveston-Houston, wrote in his weekly column that the decision to invite Obama calls for “charitable but vigorous critique.”

Obama’s presence at Notre Dame demands not only a charitable, but also a vigorous, discussion.

Perhaps it wouldn’t have been such a bad idea after all for Villanova to have asked if the president was available to speak to our graduates.


Bryan Kerns is a sophomore honors and humanities major from Drexel Hill, Pa. He can be reached at [email protected].