Several folks have already asked me my opinion on President Barack Obama’s being invited to give the Commencement Address at Notre Dame. I have been a fan of the Fighting Irish since boyhood. I have good friends there. I expect the place to lead, without my having to worry whether they are going in the right direction, though I do worry.
My first reaction to the news was, however, that I could only laugh. “How perfectly perfect,” I thought. It could not have been a better forum for the president to pursue what are, to me, his infamous “projects.” In the present climate, no act could make the South Bend school more visible than it already is, except perhaps, dare I say, a winning season on the turf?
But was Schall surprised by the invitation? Was it just a question of what Catholic school got there first? Was Schall disappointed? Not surprised, really. This is the logic of political proportionalism carried out in public. It is all done in the noble name of the greater good. What might have surprised me, I think, would have been if the president was seeking an invitation, but Notre Dame refused. I would be disappointed if the initiative came from Notre Dame. I prefer to remain in ignorance.
But one does wonder, who invited whom? Did the president’s shrewd men approach Notre Dame, or vice versa? Was the local bishop informed? It is too early yet to see what all, some, or none of the bishops will say, though this should not be long. The Pope is in Africa, but again we wonder if Rome is watching or cares much. But the president knows that the Pope did send him early congratulations on his election, so does Notre Dame.
I must say, though, that I have to give the president much credit for cleverness, whoever invited whom. I cannot think of a single act—one so simple, so innocent, so effective—that serves to do exactly what he needs to have done, namely, plunge an arrow into the heart of Catholicism’s opposition to him, what there is of it. I shake my head in admiration. From now on, all he has to say is: “But, my dear fellow, I was invited to Notre Dame.” Everyone will understand his point.
The issue of commencements at Catholic schools has been in the hopper and unresolved for years. I wrote a piece on it myself a couple of years ago on Ignatius Insight. The controversy will always be over the same issues: “Why do you want to honor this person?” “What does the honoree stand for?” “What does this selection reveal about the institution that does the inviting?” “What lesson do the graduating students learn from it about their souls and their institution?” “Just what is honor anyhow?”
But this invitation concerns a sitting president, right? Notre Dame rightly prides itself as the place where presidents speak, numbers of them have done so before. It is “academic freedom” at its best or its fuzziest, take your choice. There probably will not be a caveat in the program that tells the listeners that the university is “personally opposed.”
Will any Notre Dame students transfer to other colleges because of it? Will any prospective students change their mind about coming there in the fall? Where would they go? No doubt whatever internal controversy over the invitation there was has already been hashed out. No college president just “invites” someone without some consultation. We know several Notre Dame faculty members are Obama supporters. One suspects President Obama received the majority of eligible faculty and student votes in the November election, as he did in most other Catholic higher educational institutions.
So the president should feel comfortable that he is coming to friendly, genteel soil. And this commencement will deservedly receive world-wide coverage. The president will look very relaxed there. He will give an eloquent talk on something like “social justice” that will make Rerum Novarum seem out-of-date, though he will no doubt mention it, by name, along with the Redeemer, Aquinas, Mother Teresa, and Knute Rockne.
The president, or his writers, knows his audience. Many of them are, after all, like himself, from Chicago, the heart of Notre Dame alumni, the heart of this administration. The teleprompter will work perfectly. All will be well. I do not expect to be further surprised, just a little disappointed, perhaps.
James V. Schall, S.J. is professor of government at Georgetown University.