The University of Notre Dame is used to controversy and Fr. John Jenkins, like some past presidents of this prestigious Catholic institution, is used to managing, if not attracting it. His powers of attraction were spectacularly on display during the March 2008 “Vagina Monologues” fiasco when he allowed vulgarity disguised as art to be played out on campus. His logic? It’s part of the university’s mission “to provide a forum in which multiple viewpoints are debated in reasoned and respectful exchange — always in dialogue with faith and the Catholic tradition…”
Exactly one year later, with great pleasure he announced his invitation to President Barack Obama to deliver the 2009 commencement address had been accepted, and that the university would award him its doctorate of laws. His timing was well-calculated. After securing Obama’s acceptance, Jenkins let the local bishop know that he’d gone around him to extend that honor in the first place. And a few months before that, he had already secured considerable insurance by naming Mary Ann Glendon to receive the esteemed Laetare Medal at that same ceremony.
All was in place. Yes, a controversy would erupt, no doubt. Some bishops and Catholic faithful, a great many of them Notre Dame students and alumni, would protest. But after the 2008 election that divided Catholics down the middle, Jenkins would showcase a star from one side of the divide, and a luminary from the other. He would be charged with scandal, but he would wash the left hand with the right. Everyone was watching, and he was controlling the picture.
Until last week. After some soul-searching, Mary Ann Glendon said “No” after all.
“The significance of Glendon’s refusal is enormous,” writes Fr. Raymond de Souza in the National Catholic Register. “The most accomplished Catholic laywoman in America — former ambassador of the United States to the Holy See and current president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences — has refused to accept Notre Dame’s highest honor. It is a signal moment for the Catholic Church in the United States. It is a signal moment for the Church’s public witness. It may even be a signal moment for Notre Dame.”
It’s certainly a call to accountability. Glendon issued her letter to Jenkins directly and, preserving its integrity, released it to the public. It blazed through the internet immediately.
“Dear Fr. Jenkins,
When you informed me in December 2008 that I had been selected to receive Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal, I was profoundly moved.”
Note the timing, she says from the start. Throughout her letter, Glendon was gracious and unambiguous. She recalled her gratefulness for the university counting her 1996 commencement address among their most memorable. Then she informed Jenkins that his follow-up call in March to tell her about Obama’s role and his honorary law degree necessitated a re-writing of the speech she was already planning for the ceremony.
Glendon was once Obama’s professor at Harvard. They no doubt have a healthy respect for each other. But this was about much more than feelings and goodwill.
“First, as a longtime consultant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, I could not help but be dismayed by the news that Notre Dame also planned to award the president an honorary degree. This, as you must know, was in disregard of the U.S. bishops’ express request of 2004 that Catholic institutions ‘should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles’ and that such persons ‘should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions’. That request, which in no way seeks to control or interfere with an institution’s freedom to invite and engage in serious debate with whomever it wishes, seems to me so reasonable that I am at a loss to understand why a Catholic university should disrespect it.”
And yet, Jenkins had attempted to explain it away, saying the bishops only meant that errant Catholics were not to be honored or given a platform by Catholic universities, thus limiting the bishops’ teaching to a religious opinion rather than
a natural truth to be held by all.
“Then I learned that ‘talking points’ issued by Notre Dame in response to widespread criticism of its decision included two statements implying that my acceptance speech would somehow balance the event:
• President Obama won’t be doing all the talking. Mary Ann Glendon, the former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, will be speaking as the recipient of the Laetare Medal.
• We think having the president come to Notre Dame, see our graduates, meet our leaders, and hear a talk from Mary Ann Glendon is a good thing for the president and for the causes we care about.
“A commencement, however, is supposed to be a joyous day for the graduates and their families. It is not the right place, nor is a brief acceptance speech the right vehicle, for engagement with the very serious problems raised by Notre Dame’s decision — in disregard of the settled position of the U.S. bishops — to honor a prominent and uncompromising opponent of the Church’s position on issues involving fundamental principles of justice.”
The White House press office issued a swift response: “President Obama is disappointed by former Ambassador Mary Ann Glendon’s decision, but he looks forward to delivering an inclusive and respectful speech at the Notre Dame graduation, a school with a rich history of fostering the exchange of ideas.”
It was a smokescreen, saying nothing about substantive points Glendon had made, while perpetuating the false idea that this is somehow going to be an “exchange of ideas”. And it implied that the call for a Catholic university not to confer upon a pro-abortion president a doctorate of laws is somehow not “inclusive”.
But neither Obama nor Jenkins has controlled the message since her letter appeared.
“It is to Father Jenkins’s shame that he tried to use Glendon,” writes de Souza. “It is to her great credit that she refused to be used.”
Jenkins has invited Judge John Noonan, a former Laetare Medal honoree, to deliver an address in an attempt to fill the void left by Glendon’s absence. The justice of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will suffice for some people, most notably Fr. Jenkins. Credit him with this: Notre Dame will not award the Laetare Medal this year.
After all, it has already been awarded, and the honour is Mary Ann Glendon’s, who has elevated the witness of a faithful servant to something higher than an officeholder of a powerful institution: the noble dignity of a humble person.
Sheila Gribben Liaugminas is an Emmy Award winning journalist who reported for Time magazine for more than 20 years. She blogs at InforumBlog.com and on MercatorNet