Catholics Welcome President Obama's Invitation to Speak at Notre Dame

This week, the University of Notre Dame made an exciting announcement: President Barack Obama is to deliver the university’s 2009 commencement address and receive an honorary law degree. He joins a long line of previous US presidents who have spoken at one of the nation’s most storied Catholic institutions, one that is considered the alma mater of all Catholics, even for those who attended other universities and those who attended none. President Obama is the sixth US president to give the commencement address at the university and the ninth to be awarded an honorary degree. However, as seniors were calling their parents to tell them the good news, a small group of ultraconservative Catholics saw fit to protest the decision.

It is a little difficult to understand the furor. The reality is that, in many ways, President Obama’s approach to social justice issues very much mirrors that of the Catholic church. He is working towards an end to the war in Iraq. He wants to develop an equitable and affordable national health-care system. He has advocated at length for policies that will reduce the need for abortion. He wants to mitigate the impact of the recession on the poor.

Not only that, President Obama has the support of lay Catholics. In the 2008 presidential election, 54 percent of Catholic voters were among the 53 percent of Americans voters who voted for Barack Obama. And, on a whole host of issues, the disloyal opposition as represented by the conservative critics of Obama’s invitation does not mirror the views of the vast majority of Catholics.

It is worth noting that campaigns against speakers at Catholic universities are waged unevenly. For instance, in ­­­­­­­­­2001, President George W. Bush made the commencement address at Notre Dame. Interestingly, despite that fact that former president negated Catholic teaching on the death penalty and other social justice issues, conservative Catholics were not found protesting his presence. In 2006, Boston College, another Catholic university, awarded an honorary degree to Condoleezza Rice, who worked in an administration that supported torture and wars that the Vatican had condemned on several occasions. The conservative lobby seemed to be fine with that also.

At this stage, the administration at Notre Dame has stated that it will not be swayed by this small but noisy minority and President Obama will indeed be the commencement speaker. And while Bishop John M. D’Arcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend, in whose diocese Notre Dame is situated, has indicated that he will not attend, it is doubtful that many of the seniors will be calling home to break that news.

The critics of the decision to invite President Obama, an invitation that has most Catholics delighted, is just one high profile incident in a string of many similar attacks on the freedom of speech and academic freedom.

Whenever speakers are censored, students are denied the opportunity to a well-rounded education. This latest attempt at censorship shows how conservatives are running scared. Noting their loss of influence on lay Catholic opinion on a whole host of issues, they instead seek to shut down debate and silence the views of those with whom they disagree in a futile attempt to enforce their unpopular ideologies by decree. Rather than censorship, conservative critics should support academic freedom, thereby trusting and respecting the ability of students—and the rest of us—to make up our own minds.