Commencement speakers are a testy subject at many universities. Last year, when Northwestern (NU) tapped Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, some NU students said he wasn’t good enough; ditto when Harvard picked J.K. Rowling. The U of C has a different dilemma. We almost never get controversial speakers, which itself is a bit of a controversy. Many on campus, including me, would like to see a graduation speaker not affiliated with the University and would like to see him or her give a speech not entitled “Thinking Critically About Thinking Critically.”
Sometimes, though, I think we’re lucky that we don’t have to go through the utterly banal, utterly predictable, and utterly silly process that many schools do when they choose a well-known convocation speaker—specifically, dealing with protests that the speaker in question is not liberal/conservative/cool enough, does not have the right view about the war in Iraq/abortion, or does not really reflect the intellectual spirit/values of the school. That’s what happened when NU chose Daley and when Boston College selected Condoleezza Rice; it’s what happened when George Bush spoke at Miami Dade College, and when he spoke at Furman College, and also when he went to Yale. The list goes on and on.
The latest controversy takes us to South Bend, where some Notre Dame students aren’t happy that our president will be giving the last lecture they hear before graduating. The complaints mostly turn on Obama’s support for abortion, a position at odds with Catholic doctrine.
Never mind that many Catholics support legal abortion, including 40 percent who find it “morally acceptable,” according the latest Gallup poll. Hold aside that quite a few ND students aren’t Catholic. Forget that Obama will likely deliver a fantastic graduation address and one, by the way, during which he probably won’t sing the virtues of partial-birth abortion or Roe v. Wade. None of this matters, say people like Chicago Archbishop Cardinal Francis George, who called the invitation an “extreme embarrassment.” Notre Dame student and president of the school’s Right to Life club Mary Daly adds helpfully, “In many ways, the president does not have a whole lot in line with the mission of this university, especially in terms of its Catholicism.” The backup for these claims appears to begin and end with the president’s views toward legal abortion.
But it should hardly come as a surprise that Obama’s stance on abortion isn’t in line with the Catholic Church’s—after all, he’s not Catholic. There are any number of issues that a Catholic could criticize Obama on: support for the death penalty, contraception, and stem-cell research, for example. By George’s or Daly’s logic, any one of these subjects could disqualify Obama. In actuality, the totality of these disagreements illustrates the feebleness of any single one of them. If Catholics want to protest the choice of Obama as a speaker, fine, but they should do so not because of one specific issue, but because of his religious views as a whole.
They don’t, since it’s a lot easier to wage a campaign against someone for his support of baby killing (in the minds of abortion opponents) than for his choice of faith. Political prejudice may be somewhat socially acceptable, but religious prejudice is not.
Notre Dame is a Catholic university, and the only way to remove religious prejudice—at least when the religion in question, like Catholicism, makes claims of exclusive truths—would be to secularize the school. In fact, at a religious institution, it’s not all that unreasonable to ask for a religiously oriented graduation speaker.
That, however, is not what most who oppose Obama are demanding. To me, the notion of applying a Supreme Court–style litmus test on abortion to potential speakers is ridiculous. What makes more sense is following through on the implications of the argument and arguing for a speaker who is Catholic.
That’s fine with me—and if Notre Dame doesn’t want Obama, then we at the U of C will surely take him.
Matt Barnum is a third-year in the College majoring in psychology.