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Standing Proud with Notre Dame

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Controversy swirling around President Barack Obama's commencement

address at the University of Notre Dame this weekend has generated more

heat than light. As a Notre Dame alumnus and former student body

president, I invite civil dialogue about this issue -- especially since

part of our university's mission is to foster "the presence and voices

of diverse scholars and students." Regrettably, those more concerned

with scoring political points and stoking the flames of our nation's

culture wars have attempted to thwart this proud intellectual tradition.

Let's look at the facts. For decades, presidents of both political

parties have come to Notre Dame as commencement speakers to address such

profound issues as poverty, peace building, international affairs and

human rights. When I was a student, George W. Bush visited the

university. Along with many other Catholics, I found his positions on

the death penalty, imprudent use of military power and contempt for

international human rights treaties unconscionable. But he was the

president of the United States. His visit fostered open discussion of,

and free inquiry into, urgent issues of our time. Why should president

Obama's visit be viewed any differently?

Most students and professors at my alma mater are proud that our

nation's first African-American president will speak at the graduation

ceremony. Whether worshiping amid the stained-glassed beauty of Sacred

Heart Basilica or studying in the scholastic silence of Hesburgh

library, Notre Dame taught us the virtues of prudence and reasoned

engagement with the world outside the confines of our college community.

I have fond memories of my days exploring science, religion and

literature in classrooms where faith and reason did not clash, but

together nourished minds and hearts in the pursuit of excellence. Many

of us hope that outside interest groups will not hijack this treasured

heritage.

Catholic teaching about the sanctity of human life is clear. As Notre

Dame President Fr. John Jenkins has stated, this invitation is not an

endorsement of all of President Obama's political views. Instead, it is

a proper recognition of a president who is leading our nation in

perilous times, and who engaged young citizens in the political process

in ways unseen in a generation. President Obama has spoken eloquently

about the American experience and his speech should provide a unique

opportunity for students to hear personally from a committed world

leader facing daunting challenges. As John Quinn, Archbishop Emeritus of

San Francisco has said about President Obama's appearance, it "is in the

interest of both the church and the nation if both work together in

civility, honesty, and friendship for the common good where there are

grave divisions, as there are on abortion."

While acknowledging fundamental disagreements on issues, both the

Vatican and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sent congratulatory

messages to President Obama after his election victory. Catholic

Charities USA and other faith-based advocates for the poor have

applauded his federal budget proposal as a welcome break from policies

that favored the privileged few over the common good. The president has

reached out to pro-life leaders and directed his senior staff, including

the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, to support a

range of programs that will help strengthen families and prevent

abortions. When it comes to fighting for health care as a human right,

compassionate immigration reform and a range of social programs that

help uplift the poor, President Obama's policy priorities align with

traditional Catholic values.

President Obama will not have the opportunity to shake every student's

hand or meet individually with each professor. But I do hope he takes

some time to listen as well as speak during his visit. In the voices of

students, priests and professors, the president will hear from Catholics

resolute in faith, gracious in spirit and eager to engage with him about

our most urgent moral and political challenges. This is the Notre Dame I

remember and love. This is the ideal of a Catholic university at work in

the world.

The writer was the Student Body President at the University of Notre

Dame in 2004-2005.