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Adam Istvan

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Standing Proud with Notre Dame

Posted: 05/12/09 04:45 PM ET

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.