06/19/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Obama's Catholic Baptism By Fire

"The Day the Dome Was Tarnished Forever."

So read the backs of T-shirts worn by some number of anti-choice protesters during President's Obama's visit to the Catholic University of Notre Dame over the weekend to deliver a commencement address, one which took a typically civil, sensitive and conciliatory stance in discussing an issue that is deeply polarizing for many; and has become the somehow holy inspiration for others to engage in crass sloganeering and even violent action.

The irony is that, by selecting Obama to speak at its commencement ceremonies, Notre Dame was clearly honoring the school's Catholic tradition, which, at its best, celebrates the power of the intellect and the spirit to overcome obstacles and bring social justice to the community. The overwhelming majority of the school clearly understood this. Meanwhile, the small number of strident pro-lifers clogging the campus with their placards of mangled fetuses and "baby killer" signs were exercising their right to assemble with loads of gruesome imagery and quite a bit of tasteless insult, all of which are generally outside the temperament and the tone of Catholic discourse. Even the members of ND Response, a student group organized to oppose the President's visit, were offended: "That's not Notre Dame," said a group spokesman. "You teach through winning over the mind. We don't feel that those images will do anything constructive."


Damn -- er, "darn" -- straight. So what's taking place here, exactly? Has some chunk of the academic Catholic community, people generally devoted to "winning over the mind," now been corrupted by the intolerance and anti-intellectualism that are the hallmarks of so many factions of the Fundamentalist Christian movement? Will American Catholics soon be terrorizing 10-year-olds with plastic fetus dolls (see film, Jesus Camp)? Consider the conceptual leap required for a 25-year-old Notre Dame student to boycott his own graduation because Obama's policies "are opposed to the culture of life and therefore our Catholic values."

Are all other Catholic values -- helping the poor, developing the mind, caring for the sick, practicing social justice, all that old, unglamorous stuff -- to be demoted to second-tier virtues? As with any political persuasion or religious orientation, being Catholic does not automatically mean that you agree with the official line on every issue: it means that you are engaged -- civilly and soulfully -- in the debate. If you think the Church's stated positions are wrong on abortion, gay rights and stem-cell research, that is your right, as a conscientious member of the community. It does not disqualify you. The Catholic Church, it should be remembered, stands entirely opposed to the death penalty. Why isn't that the dividing line?

Look, Catholics may be religious, but they're generally not stupid. (After all, tens of millions of them voted for Obama.) The idea of even a minority of students and priests at a Jesuit-leaning university -- a tradition that has always encouraged consensus-builders and cultural ambassadors -- protesting the appearance of the brightest and most socially conscious President that we've had in a generation should strike most of us as beyond contradictory. To even further imagine that Obama's policies "are opposed to the culture of life" is an unimaginable sort of self-delusion. Or else, it's the manifestation of eight years of Bush-era incivility and shrinking of the mind, the Fundamentalist-championed "You're with us or against us" brain-freeze in public discourse that Obama has made clear is perhaps his most problematic inheritance from the Bush 43 years.


Consider Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele actually having the nerve to say that Notre Dame should not have given Obama an honorary degree; that it was somehow "inappropriate." Really? That's not an appropriate honorarium for someone who overcame racial and financial barriers to attend -- and excel at -- Columbia and Harvard Law School and become the first black President of the United States, while setting an example of Christian faith in action by his good works, exemplary family and his tireless efforts to raise the level of public conversation in these "In-Your-Face" United States? No? Not appropriate?

But, surely, such a degree would have been perfectly appropriate -- and, in fact, an invitation was once extended -- for a noble anti-choice, pro-death penalty activist like Dubya, a man with an avowed, documented distrust of academics and intellectuals, a man who never once attempted to find common ground on the issues of race, abortion or gay rights -- not that he had the emotional IQ to do so -- who floated through his college years with barely a scintilla of intellectual passion, who executed an illegal war in Iraq against the wishes of the Church, and who, as part and parcel of an inarticulateness that still amazes, repeatedly called the natives of the country where the modern church was built "Eye-talians"! Would that have been more "appropriate," more in keeping with "Catholic values"?

Obama's address, far from tarnishing that dome, burnished it with the high-mindedness and promotion of understanding -- including on the issue of abortion -- that he has made his mission and his mandate. As the majority of Notre Dame graduates recognized, they were lucky to have him. So are we.