Obama’s Notre Dame Dust-Up

President Barack Obama will travel to Indiana to give the commencement address at Notre Dame this Sunday. Many alumni and Catholics have protested the invitation in the weeks since it has been announced, saying that Obama’s support for stem cell research and a woman’s right to choose do not align with Catholic morality.

Yet Notre Dame President The Rev. John Jenkins was right to invite the president largely because Obama’s moral commitments are similar to those expressed in Notre Dame’s mission statement:

“The University seeks to cultivate in its students not only an appreciation for the great achievements of human beings, but also a disciplined sensibility to the poverty, injustice, and oppression that burden the lives of so many. The aim is to create a sense of human solidarity and concern for the common good that will bear fruit as learning becomes service to justice.”

A great university is not and cannot be defined by a single social issue, such as stem cell research or abortion, as Notre Dame’s critics have argued. In fact, in inviting Obama, Notre Dame is more in line with ordinary Catholics than they are with those protesting Obama’s speech. A recent Gallup poll shows 67 percent of Catholics approve of the job President Obama has done in his first 100 days. Rank-and-file Catholics’ views are closer to the American mainstream on issues such as abortion or stem-cell research than they are to their church’s official position on those topics.

Fostering a vigorous debate is the best role for a university in a religiously pluralistic society. The fact that there is even controversy about Notre Dame inviting President Obama to give the Commencement address is testimony to how divided we have become as a nation when it comes to faith and public life. In 1984, at Notre Dame, Governor Mario Cuomo gave a defining speech about religious faith and political life called “Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor’s Perspective.”

Cuomo’s speech outlines a Catholic consensus on the role of faith and the work of political leaders in a pluralistic democracy, a consensus reached in New York during Governor Cuomo’s tenure. It is a consensus that seems to be returning among the rank-and-file of American Catholics.

“The Catholic public official lives the political truth that most Catholics through most of American history have accepted and insisted on: the truth that to assure our freedom we must allow others the same freedom, even if occasionally it produces conduct by them which we would hold to be sinful. I protect my right to be a Catholic by preserving your right to be a Jew, or a Protestant, or a nonbeliever, or anything else you choose. We know that the price of seeking to force our belief on others is that they might someday force their belief on us.

Now, this freedom is the fundamental strength of our unique experiment in government. In the complex interplay of forces and considerations that go into the making of our law and policies, its preservation, the preservation of freedom, must be a pervasive and dominant concern.”

It is essential that all Americans help to rebuild this workable consensus in an increasingly pluralistic America. Notre Dame’s President Jenkins has taken an important step in that direction by inviting President Barack Obama to give the 2009 Commencement Address and by awarding the president an honorary degree.

Susan Thistlethwaite is a Senior Fellow in the Faith and Public Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. To read more about this program at the Center please go to Religion and Values page of our website.