President Obama is headed to South Bend to deliver the Commencement Address later this spring, and already the howls have begun. A website that is the brainchild of the Cardinal Newman Society has been launched: www.notredamescandal.com.
Of course, the fringe on the right hates Notre Dame as much as it hates Obama. The University does not stand up to their "More Catholic Than The Pope" standards. The university’s decision to allow a presentation of the play "The Vagina Monologues" was only the most recent controversy, one that even involved a scolding from the local bishop.
Politically, the decision is smart for Obama. The people objecting would never vote for him anyway. For the rest of the nation, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, Notre Dame is an icon for the entire Catholic educational vocation. When he was planning Liberty University, the Rev. Jerry Falwell said he wanted to build "an evangelical Notre Dame." Obama’s speech will be an opportunity to honor the Church’s tradition of teaching.
But, what will he say? He and his administration spoke of a dichotomy between faith and reason when they defended their decision on embryonic stem cells; Notre Dame is dedicated to the proposition that faith and reason must walk hand in hand. One of his advisors even spoke disparagingly of "dogma" although the Lady honored in the name of the university is patroness of America under her dogmatic title of the Immaculate Conception. More than most liberals, Obama has defended the right of religious voices to be heard in the public square, but it is not clear that he understands how those voices challenge the hyper-(better to say, crimped) rationalistic worldview he imbibed at Columbia and Harvard.
Concern about the limits of the President’s intellectual disposition, a concern that I suspect extends to ninety-nine percent of politicians, is no excuse for bad manners of the type demonstrated by the Cardinal Newman Society. (Newman, of course, is turning over in his grave at the behavior of those who invoke his name.) A visit by the President of the United States is a great honor and all Catholics should revel in it. The colleges and universities our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents built are expressions of the engaged Catholicism that has always marked the life of the Church in this country. We had to build them because we had been forced into a ghetto, but they became the vehicle for entering the mainstream of American culture. President Obama is not coming for a football game or other entertainment. He will be coming to address the graduates of a great Catholic university and, by extension, the members of a great local Church, the Catholic Church in America. We should all be proud and, as Newman would instruct, we should all be gracious.