>So it happened, despite the efforts of many to remind Father Jenkins that he was crossing a line in doing so. I did not watch the event on television, since I would have been distracted by the delivery. Instead, I calmly reviewed the speech, in my own time, and without the armchair quarterback commentary of news reporters or media pundits to influence my reaction. You can read the full text of the speech here.
Most of the speech is, of course, mere platitude. This is what we have come to expect at graduation ceremonies, and in that sense the speech did not disappoint. Commencement is a pat on the back, saying, “Go out and do good, congratulations.” However, neither did the speech disappoint in giving some possible insight into one of the issues that brought many of us to protest the awarding of an honorary degree to Mr. Obama.
One sentence in particular caught my attention: “Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded not only in sound science, but also in clear ethics, as well as respect for the equality of women.” This seems to be a potential Trojan horse of a policy proposal. While at first blush conciliatory, it leaves a critical, unanswered question: who defines what a “sensible conscience clause” happens to be? If that person is Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sibelius, we know from her own record what she considers to be “sensible”.
Those such as myself who oppose abortion because it is murder do not “disagree with abortion”. Such verbal nonsense is typical of the moral relativism which has come to define the Left. Mr. Obama deflates the moral evil of abortion to, at best, a philosophical difference of opinion or, at worst, a triviality.
From recent history we all know that some extreme sects of Christianity in this country and Islam in others believe that the moral evil known as suicide bombing is appropriate under certain circumstances. Can we imagine Mr. Obama giving a speech in which he seemed to reach out to those who think that suicide bombing is a legitimate moral position? When an action is fundamentally evil, one does not simply agree or disagree with it. For example, I am also opposed to carjackings – does that mean that I “disagree with carjackings”?
In the end, the speech was what it was – more of the same from someone who has somehow mersmerized the world with the political deftness to say absolutely nothing of substance. It will be digested, analyzed, and talked about for the next few days, and then it will be forgotten. And truthfully, the speech was never the point.
What most of the media and indeed the more extreme members of the pro-life and pro-abortion movements failed to grasp from the beginning of this scandal is that the fundamental issue was never really the extending of an invitation to Mr. Obama. Father Jenkins could have invited Mr. Obama to speak on campus, engage in a discussion with students, participate in a symposium, etc. I for one would not have liked it, but it is part of the academic life of a university to engage their students in thinking about the world outside. The real issue here was and is Father Jenkins and his decision to present an award to a figure who – ahem – “disagrees” with the Church’s teaching on abortion in such a way as to have acted to increase the number of abortions within the first days of his administration, and to set himself on a collision course against the Church when it comes to Catholic healthcare providers.
Fraternal correction requires Catholics, when we are in a position so to do, to speak to our brother or sister and say, “You are straying from Church teaching, and you need to correct that error.” The bishops of this country, and indeed the Superior General of Father Jenkins’ Congregation of the Holy Cross itself, could not have been clearer in correcting Father Jenkins. Nevertheless, he chose not to make that correction.
Father Jenkins was told by many, many persons, from distinguished theologians to humble, non-prominent alumni, not to touch the hot stove, and he did it anyway. As a result he burned his hands – and he probably burned some bridges as well. He will have to live with the ramifications of his decision. Notre Dame suffered as a result, and certainly the Church did as well.
Even in the midst of this disaster however, opportunities for improvement can appear. For example, it may be that the fallout from this scandal will cause the bishops to take a long, hard look at what is being brought about through both the catastrophic failure of effective catechesis, and the endemic post-conciliar problem of open disobedience to Church teaching and authority. It may be that priests in drafting their homilies begin to realize that in these increasingly morally bankrupt times they must at times say things that are unpopular, recognizing that in His own words to us Christ spends more time warning us about sin and judgment than he does speaking about any other subject. And it may be that those of us who are just man-on-the-street, everyday Catholics may have to take look at ourselves and ask, “Am I causing scandal to my fellow Catholics in my own words and actions?”, and “What kind of impression of the Church am I giving to non-Catholics?” Now that the storm has passed, perhaps some good may yet come out of the Notre Dame scandal.