A few weeks ago when Georgetown University invited President Obama to give the commencement address, I meant to write about it. Then, when the President asked that the crucifix and IHS logo behind the podium be covered, I meant to write about that, too.
Now Notre Dame University has also invited the President to give its commencement address, and also plans to award him an honorary degree. To “balance the ticket,” as it were, Mary Ann Glendon would also be speaking at the commencement. Glendon, Harvard professor, former U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican, and a great favorite of conservative Catholics, would speak as the recipient of Notre Dame’s prestigious Laetare Medal.
That was the plan, anyway. Professor Glendon, God bless her, decided that she could not in good conscience participate in the ceremony, and regretfully declined an award that she had been thrilled to learn she was to receive.
The letter was first published at First Things, but the link was unavailable at the time I posted this due to unusually high traffic to their site as a result of this story. The letter has been reprinted at Whispers in the Loggia, and is worth quoting at some length:
First, as a longtime consultant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, I could not help but be dismayed by the news that Notre Dame also planned to award the president an honorary degree. This, as you must know, was in disregard of the U.S. bishops’ express request of 2004 that Catholic institutions “should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles” and that such persons “should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.” That request, which in no way seeks to control or interfere with an institution’s freedom to invite and engage in serious debate with whomever it wishes, seems to me so reasonable that I am at a loss to understand why a Catholic university should disrespect it.
Then I learned that “talking points” issued by Notre Dame in response to widespread criticism of its decision included two statements implying that my acceptance speech would somehow balance the event:
• “President Obama won’t be doing all the talking. Mary Ann Glendon, the former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, will be speaking as the recipient of the Laetare Medal.”
• “We think having the president come to Notre Dame, see our graduates, meet our leaders, and hear a talk from Mary Ann Glendon is a good thing for the president and for the causes we care about.”
A commencement, however, is supposed to be a joyous day for the graduates and their families. It is not the right place, nor is a brief acceptance speech the right vehicle, for engagement with the very serious problems raised by Notre Dame’s decision—in disregard of the settled position of the U.S. bishops—to honor a prominent and uncompromising opponent of the Church’s position on issues involving fundamental principles of justice.
Finally, with recent news reports that other Catholic schools are similarly choosing to disregard the bishops’ guidelines, I am concerned that Notre Dame’s example could have an unfortunate ripple effect.
It is with great sadness, therefore, that I have concluded that I cannot accept the Laetare Medal or participate in the May 17 graduation ceremony.
President Obama is disappointed by former Ambassador Mary Glendon’s decision, but he looks forward to delivering an inclusive and respectful speech at the Notre Dame graduation, a school with a rich history of fostering the exchange of ideas. While he is honored to have the support of millions of people of all faiths, he does not govern with the expectation that everyone sees eye to eye with him on every position, and the spirit of debate and healthy disagreement on important issues is part of what he loves about this country.
— Jen Psaki, White House Deputy Press Secretary
Yes, we are a diverse country. No, we don’t all see eye to eye. Long live the spirit of debate and healthy disagreement in this great land of ours.
But Notre Dame University isn’t a public university. It doesn’t represent the U.S. citizens as a whole, who are a wonderfully diverse bunch. It is a Catholic University, and it represents the Catholic Church and Americans who are members of that Church. And despite what the Protestant Mr. Obama would like us to believe, the Catholic Church isn’t a wonderfully diverse organization. It is a hierarchical organization with an established dogma. If people don’t like that, they don’t have to be Catholic. But neither do Catholic universities have to confer honorary degrees on people who espouse — and work hard to enact into law — principles that are anathema to orthodox Catholics.