April 24, 2009


Obama at Notre Dame

How is it that some champions of social justice are too blind to see that abortion and embryonic stem-cell research are the ultimate human-rights issues because they involve the most basic human right, the right to life? They laudably advocate for the poor and victims of injustice, but they have a blind spot when it comes to protection of the human embryo.

And why cannot these people understand that a desirable good end doesn’t justify evil means? It can’t be moral to fund research that might benefit those with serious illnesses when that research requires the killing of human beings.

Biology, not religious dogma, tells us that the human embryo is a human being. It’s a woman’s egg that has been fertilized by a man’s sperm and has begun to develop into a baby.

Yet even someone you would think would know that, former president Bill Clinton, when asked during an interview on CNN if he had any reservations about his bioethical decisions as president, said six times within a few sentences that scientists should not “fool around” with embryos “where there’s any possibility, even if it’s somewhat remote, that they could be fertilized and become human beings.”

Embryos are real people, folks.

All this is at the heart of the controversy created when the University of Notre Dame invited President Barack Obama to be its commencement speaker and to receive an honorary degree on May 17. To say that the controversy has divided Catholics is an understatement.

Some Catholics are angered by the invitation because of Obama’s support for abortion and embryonic stem-cell research. Other Catholics are angered because many U.S. bishops and Catholic laity have criticized the university for issuing the invitation to the president of the United States.

It is true that five other presidents have been commencement speakers at Notre Dame and eight other presidents have received honorary degrees. It is also true that, as Notre Dame’s president, Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, said, “The invitation to President Obama to be our commencement speaker should not be taken as condoning or endorsing his positions on specific issues regarding the protection of human life, including abortion and embryonic stem-cell research.” Notre Dame has not always agreed with the views of some of its previous commencement speakers, presidents or others.

Notre Dame prides itself on being a great university, which encourages the free exchange of views on controversial subjects. But this is more than just an exchange of views.

Notre Dame also prides itself on being a great Catholic university. Therefore, it should not honor someone who acts in defiance of the Church’s fundamental moral principles, as Obama clearly has done. An honorary degree is obviously an honor.

Father Jenkins can say that Notre Dame is honoring Obama despite his positions on the life issues because he is an inspiring leader and our first African-American president. And it has often been pointed out that a majority of Catholics voted for Obama despite his positions on the life issues.

But, in our opinion, these are not sufficient reasons for a university that wants to be known as the pre-eminent Catholic university in the country. The invitation has badly damaged the university in the eyes of hundreds of thousands of people. As of April 21, more than 326,000 people had added their names to a petition on the Web site notredamescandal.com, initiated by the Cardinal Newman Society, asking Father Jenkins to “halt this travesty immediately.”

Father Jenkins has spoken frequently about efforts to preserve Notre Dame’s Catholic identity. The current issue of the quarterly Notre Dame Magazine (published before the current controversy) includes a six-page article about the ways the university is serving the Church. It’s impressive. However, all that has been lost in the view of many because the invitation to Obama is seen as putting prestige over faith.

There will be protests at Notre Dame on May 17. The best protest will be a prayer service for the president.

—John F. Fink

(Editor Emeritus John F. Fink is a Notre Dame alumnus, as are several of his children and other members of his family.)

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