Is Obama Worth a Mass? Print
By Ralph McInerny   
Monday, 23 March 2009

Now that the abortion president will be honored and feted and listened to at Notre Dame’s commencement, the question becomes, who will say the commencement Mass?

The University of Notre Dame has officially and with much self-satisfaction invited President Barack Obama to address its 2009 graduates and to receive an honorary law degree. Not to put too fine a point on it, this is a deliberate thumbing of the collective nose at the Roman Catholic Church to which Notre Dame purports to be faithful. Faithful? Tell it to Julian the Apostate.

That someone who procures or advocates abortion thereby excludes himself from communion with the Church has been clear doctrine all along, and increasingly bishops have found the courage to tell those Catholic politicians who are the great enablers of abortion legislation that they cannot receive Holy Communion. Is it any worse to celebrate such a politician as Barack Obama? So where does that put ND President Father Jenkins? He can hardly say Mass without receiving the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, so doubtless he will recuse himself and have someone else say the Mass. But to whom will he go? All his cohorts must come under the same cloud as he. Perhaps the pastor of the president’s erstwhile church in Chicago will be invited to harangue the assembled graduates and parents and faculty – those who can bring themselves to attend commencement this year. Why not?

Perhaps because, having been reminded of the sermons he heard over the years, Barack Obama distanced himself, as they say, from the fiery orator at whose feet he sat for decades. In this, whatever his motives, he has perhaps pointed a way for the Notre Dame administrators to redeem themselves. Perhaps they are unaware of Obama’s record on abortion. Perhaps they have not been paying attention to what he has already done as president. On being reminded of all this, and mindful of the parlous position this puts them into vis-a-vis the Church if they thus celebrate the president, perhaps they will as publicly rescind their invitation as they have issued it? Don’t count on it.

For one whose fifty-four year career as a member of the Notre Dame faculty is coming to an end this June, it is a bitter thing to reflect on the 2009 commencement speaker. It is of course convenient to have an excuse to absent oneself from the festivities. Listening to commencement addresses is the penalty that graduates must pay to receive their diplomas. One can count memorable commencement speeches on the cuticle of one finger. They are ceremonial occasions that will be little remembered and less celebrated. One has groaned at previous selections, but the invitation to Barack Obama is far from being the usual effort of the university to get into warm contact with the power figures of the day. It is an unequivocal abandonment of any pretense at being a Catholic university. And it is in sad continuity with decades of waffling that have led with seeming inevitability to it.

No event was more crucial for Catholic universities than the infamous 1967 Land O’Lakes statement in which the assembled presidents of Catholic institutions declared their freedom from the supposedly baleful influence of Catholic orthodoxy. They would continue to call themselves Catholic, but the definition of the term was constantly under construction. And this by institutions whose task is decidedly not to define what Catholicism is. And now we have come to the point where the University of Notre Dame is publicly excluding itself from allegiance to and acceptance of one of the most fundamental of Christian moral truths, mentioned explicitly in the Didache and again and again over the centuries. Abortion is an essentially evil act, both from the viewpoint of natural morality and from the explicit teaching the Church. There is no way in which an individual, a politician or an institution can finesse that fact.

By inviting Barack Obama as commencement speaker, Notre Dame is telling the nation that the teaching of the Catholic church on this fundamental matter can be ignored. Lip service may be paid to the teaching on abortion, but it is no impediment to upward mobility, to the truly vulgar lust to be welcomed into secular society, whether on the part of individuals or institutions.

Some years ago, Archbishop Michael Miller in his Vatican capacity as overseer of Catholic education, said in an address at Notre Dame that the Holy Father was considering prohibiting the use of the word “Catholic” by institutions whose behavior contradicts that use. By inviting Barack Obama to be the 2009 commencement speaker, Notre Dame has forfeited its right to call itself a Catholic university. It invites an official rebuke. May it come.

Ralph McInerny is a writer of philosophy, fiction, and cultural criticism, who has taught at Notre Dame since 1955.

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