Spring 2009

Editorial: President Obama, Notre Dame, and a Dialogue That Witnesses: A Question for Father Jenkins

David L. Schindler

“The burden of ‘witness’ rightly understood is not that one is unwilling to dialogue with another, but that the dialogue called for in given cases demands clarity from the outset regarding the gravity of what is at stake.”

(1) In its invitation to President Obama, Notre Dame started a controversy it surely could have anticipated would exacerbate divisions among Catholics in America. The controversy was not necessary: it did not come to, but was brought about by, the university. To say that the university went ahead with the invitation simply for reasons of prestige would be reductive. On the contrary, Father Jenkins stressed President Obama’s achievements regarding the economy, two wars and health care, immigration and education reform, and racial prejudice, even as he distanced the university from support of Obama’s positions regarding “the protection of human life, including abortion and embryonic stem-cell research.” 

The primary reason for the invitation was thus to honor Obama, America’s first African-American president, while using the event also as an opportunity for “further positive engagement” and “dialogue” regarding differences in the “life” issues.

My comment focuses on the nature of the dialogue implied by Father Jenkins’s invitation, in light of the reasons offered by him.

Father Jenkins says his expression of personal disagreement with President Obama regarding abortion and embryonic stem-cell research demonstrates that the honor extended does not “suggest support” for all of the latter’s actions. We can grant that Father Jenkins indeed does not support all of the President’s actions. The relevant question, however, is whether an honorary degree carries a distinct meaning of its own, and what Notre Dame’s invitation implies in this regard.

An honorary law degree bestowed on a solemn occasion such as a commencement ceremony obviously is meant to honor someone in the name of the university, hence in the name of the ends of education for which the university stands. Father Jenkins’s invitation thus cannot but bear implications—however unintended—with respect to how he thinks these ends are to be understood.

The pertinent fact is that, while recognizing Obama’s achievements and also registering disagreement with respect to what he judges to be Obama’s deficits regarding protection of human life, Father Jenkins went forward with the invitation. This fact itself testifies, even if not altogether deliberately, to a proportionate weighting of the content of these achievements and deficits in relation to the purpose of Notre Dame as a Catholic institution of higher education.