As a student at the University of Notre Dame, I can safely say that the past few months have been pretty crazy.
On campus we read the articles. We watched the YouTube videos. We drove past the protesters at our gates and we watched three different planes fly over with banners telling university president Fr. Jenkins to change his mind. We signed petitions and discussed the issue in every single class. For the few months after the news of President Obama’s visit was released, the hubbub on campus did not die down. It only gained momentum as the day crept closer.
Only now that the academic year has ended and I’ve reached the quietness of home have I truly been able to reflect upon those extraordinary months. After three years at the university, I’ve learned that rule number one at Notre Dame is this: everyone has an opinion. Rule number two: there is no hiding this opinion—either you proclaim it to the masses or you will have it forced out of you by some student group passing around a petition. The campus was clearly divided—whenever anyone asked, “So what do you think about Obama coming?” it was as though anyone within a ten-foot radius could hear the sharp mental gulp that came before answering, “Well…”
You never really knew how any given person would respond to that question, or how they would react to your opinion, but nearly everyone ventured to speak their mind. It is difficult to estimate the percentage of students who were pro-Obama speaking or anti-Obama speaking; both parties were quite vociferous. During the days following the announcement of his invitation, two Facebook groups arose and grew steadily in number, both surpassing 5,000 members.
While all the underclassmen had strong opinions on the matter—freshmen, sophomores, and juniors alike—there were none more affected by the announcement than the senior class itself. It seemed as though graduation would be ruined for everyone involved: those who didn’t want Obama to speak would be upset that he was speaking, and those who did want him there would nevertheless be upset about all the protests surrounding the event.
Because of this, I saw something peculiar happening with the senior class: the majority began to just accept it. While some seniors planned not to attend their own commencement—indeed, about 40 of them instead attended a prayer service held while the commencement was in session—I heard many more declare that they were not going to let this ruin their graduation day, and that, even though they personally opposed Obama, they would be honored at the very least to have the President of the United States speak at their commencement ceremony. I ended up admiring those few seniors who attended commencement, but still protested in their own small ways by wearing white carnations or placing a pro-life symbol on their graduation caps.
However, the overall feeling on campus was that the great majority of the seniors either supported Obama, or were on the fence about the issue, still wanting to hear what he had to say.
I was not present at commencement itself, but I read the speech as soon as it was released to the press and then watched it online. It struck me that these were two completely different experiences. Reading the speech allowed me to focus on his words, and not the way he delivered them; but when I actually watched the event, the reverse was true: I was focused on the man who delivered them. Fact: President Obama is an excellent speaker. Fact: President Obama says the things his audience wants to hear. I had to remind myself to look beyond the words.
Obama makes several claims in his speech regarding how he wants to draft a better conscience clause, reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies (with the supposed overarching goal of reducing abortions), and reconcile with those who have different values and priorities. It is all well and good for him to have made these statements, but in truth, what he has done so far tends towards the opposite.
The effect can be deeply ironic. Take a look at this quote from his speech:
“We must decide how to save God's creation from a changing climate that threatens to destroy it. We must seek peace at a time when there are those who will stop at nothing to do us harm, and when weapons in the hands of a few can destroy the many.”
These sentences in particular jumped out at me when I read the text of the speech for the first time. They could be directly applied to the issue that has been central to this entire controversy: abortion. Indeed, Mr. President, we must decide how to save God’s creation—the millions of unborn babies—from a changing climate—this very government administration—that threatens to destroy it.
The president spoke at Arizona State University earlier this year, but that university did not award him an honorary degree of any sort. Their reasoning? That President Obama had not held his position long enough to have accomplished anything worthy of such an honour. By contrast, Notre Dame—a Catholic institution—has honored a man with policies that go against one of the most important aspects of the Catholic faith. How is it that Arizona State, a secular institution, managed to do what so many in the past few months have wanted Notre Dame to do as well? Yes, the Catholic faith teaches tolerance for those with differing beliefs, but it does not teach us to deck them with honours.
And yet, while watching that speech, I had a sad glimpse of the reasons why, perhaps, Fr. Jenkins upheld the invitation and the honorary degree, despite the nationwide controversy it caused. Essentially, he gave the pro-Obama seniors the commencement speaker of their dreams; and for those on the fence, a skilled speaker who could deliver words they wanted to hear. A logical move, perhaps, but not the right one for the president of the most prominent Catholic university in the United States—and furthermore, for a Roman Catholic priest.
But what does all this mean to me—as a Catholic, as a Notre Dame student, as a pro-life person? For me—and, I hope, for all the other pro-life Catholic students at this school—the biggest lesson that I have learned in the past few months is about leadership. As a Catholic leader, Fr. Jenkins has failed us. However, the very last thing I could imagine doing is burning my Notre Dame apparel and renouncing any allegiance to my beloved university—something that many upset Notre Dame graduates and alumni have claimed to do.
On the contrary, I have loved the University of Notre Dame since the very first day I set foot on its campus as a high school senior, and that love has only grown over the past three years. At this university I have grown in my faith, and made lasting friendships with people who not only share my beliefs, but have grown along with me.
Notre Dame is full of students and faculty who are not afraid to say they are Catholic, who fill up the basilica every Sunday morning, who flock to the 28 dorm masses on Sunday nights, who line up for confessions, and who never leave our Lady’s Grotto empty even when it is only 20 degrees outside. Notre Dame is full of people active in their faith, and these people—who make up a huge part of the university—cannot and should not be forgotten.
Fr. Jenkins is in charge of our university just as President Obama is in charge of our country, and while we owe these leaders our respect simply because they are our leaders, it does not mean that they are always right, or that we should believe every word they say—no matter how beautifully spoken these words may be.
There’s a take-home message for us pro-life students in this, too, I think. Defending human life and dignity is not a war of words any more than it is a matter of soothing rhetoric. The commencement controversy has forced us to speak up; now we have to show what our words mean in the realities of life, and so convince some of our classmates — perhaps even Fr Jenkins — to come down off the fence.
Michelle Romeu has just completed her junior year as an English major at the University of Notre Dame. She is also a volunteer editorial assistant at MercatorNet.