March 28, 2009
BY CAROL MARIN Sun-Times Columnist
It takes courage to be a Catholic educator. In America's culture wars, abortion is the trump card of every moral discussion. Or so the righteous right requires us to believe.
At Notre Dame, the most Catho- lic of Catholic universities, a national protest is building over the decision by the school's president, the Rev. John I. Jenkins, to invite President Obama to give the commencement address on May 17.
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Sun-Times columnist Carol Marin
Petitions are being gathered. Graphic posters of aborted fetuses are being prepared. Protesters plan to line the road into South Bend on graduation day.
All of this is happening because pro-choice Obama, in the first weeks of his presidency, has reversed Bush administration policy by restoring funding to international family planning groups that provide abortion services and by removing limits on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.
You'd think that's all he had done in his first 69 days in office. Winding down the Iraq war, fortifying forces in Afghanistan, trying to stop the economy from going over a cliff, working for decent health care for all citizens apparently don't matter much.
The Notre Dame decision once again raises the question of whether a Catholic university must be Catholic first and a university second.
In Chicago, this is not a new discussion, as Dick Meister, the former provost of DePaul University --the nation's largest Catholic university -- knows firsthand.
In 1986, Eleanor Smeal, then-president of the National Organization for Women, was invited to speak by the DePaul Student Affairs Office. Protests, petitions, threats and demonstrations all arrived at DePaul's doorstep, and Meister's boss, the president of the university, withdrew the invitation under pressure.
A counterprotest, led in part by Meister's undergrad son, Christopher, argued that the mission of a university is to hear all voices -- not condone them necessarily -- but hear them.
Dick Meister's job was to find a middle ground. That turned out to be an off-site location where Smeal could speak -- but not as an official guest of the university.
"It was a juggle," Meister recalled by phone last week.
What about Notre Dame?
Meister, who got both his master's and doctorate from Notre Dame, has very strong feelings about that. "With the president of the United States at Notre Dame, it's not even close to the Smeal situation," he said. "She represented an organization, Obama represents the whole nation."
"The role of a Catholic university," said Meister, is to "espouse academic freedom where people are allowed to research, teach and hear many voices on campus . . . at the same time manifesting the gospel of Christ and the beatitudes to serve the poor, be the bridge between the haves and the have-nots."
What about the fear that Notre Dame is compromising its Catholic identity?
"It epitomizes Notre Dame's Catholic identity," he argued. "Hearing many voices is its strength, not its weakness."
On the Obama decision, Catholic bishops vehemently disagree. Chief among them is Bishop John D'Arcy of the South Bend diocese, which includes Notre Dame. He will not attend, saying, "A bishop must teach the Catholic faith 'in season and out of season,' and he teaches not by his words -- but by his actions."
If only Catholic bishops were consistent in their own actions. Haven't they allowed Cardinal Bernard Law, formerly of Boston, and the prelate who obstructed justice in the investigation of the horrific pedophilia scandal in his own diocese, to remain a member in good standing? Law wasn't sanctioned but rewarded: He now runs the third largest basilica in Rome.
Does that outrageous Vatican decision mean we shouldn't listen to what else they have to say?
Bishops aren't one-dimensional.
And neither is Barack Obama.
Commencement will be a testament to Notre Dame's strength and Rev. Jenkins' courage.