From the looks of it, you’d think the devil was invited to speak at the University of Notre Dame’s graduation commencement ceremony. Then again, maybe some people believe he is, though I bet even Rush Limbaugh would find this a bit extreme. For commencement and graduation, most universities invite a distinguished individual to address the graduating seniors in order to provide them with words of wisdom and advice for the future. Who better for the task than the President of the United States? I am therefore bewildered that President Obama’s scheduled speech has been met with such defiance and outcry.
Notre Dame is well renowned for multiple reasons. Notre Dame is a private university with a Roman Catholic affiliation, and is one of the country’s most prominent secular universities. Notre Dame is also extremely prestigious academically, and was ranked by U.S. News and World Report as one of the top 20 private institutions in the country. Lastly, the athletics program at Notre Dame, especially the football team, is one of the most dominating in the nation. However, at its core, Notre Dame is a research institution and a university, with a mission “to provide a forum where, through free inquiry and open discussion, the various lines of Catholic thought may intersect with all the forms of knowledge found in the arts, sciences, professions and every other area of human scholarship and creativity.”
There is a tradition at Notre Dame to invite the newly elected president to speak at graduation. In 1977 Jimmy Carter spoke, in 1991 Ronald Reagan spoke and in 2001 George W. Bush spoke. This year President Obama was invited to speak at the May 17th graduation ceremony. Despite his extremely full schedule, President Obama accepted.
Though many students expressed their excitement over our nation’s first African American president’s willingness to serve as their commencement speaker, the reactions were not uniform. Some Catholics — students, alumni, parents and general citizens — are angered by the university’s choice of speaker. Most of the disagreement surrounds President Obama’s support for embryonic stem cell research and international family planning. To use this as an objection to having him as the commencement speaker seems to be a direct contradiction of the “free inquiry” and “open discussion” mentioned in the university’s mission statement.
Though it is impossible to please everybody, I am amazed at the degree of protest that has mounted surrounding the issue. Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of the Phoenix Diocese called Obama’s selection a “public act of disobedience” and “a grave mistake.” Last week, Bishop John D’Arcy of the Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese, which includes Notre Dame, said he would not attend the ceremony because of Obama’s policies. Furthermore, a website called notredamescandal.com has set up an online petition to rescind the invitation. The website, launched by the Cardinal Newman Society, claims it has nearly 48,000 signatures.
Everyone is entitled to his or her own religious beliefs, and many students attend the University of Notre Dame because they feel their beliefs are supported. However, the purpose of commencement is not, and should not be, about religion. An initiative of all colleges should be to support diverging ideas and foster an environment where different perspectives can co-exist. Though I completely disagree with his viewpoints, I praise Columbia University for having allowed President Ahmadinejad of Iran to speak at their university in Sept. 2007. It is with the same mentality that I criticize those who oppose President Obama’s appearance at Norte Dame’s commencement.
During my search for varying opinions on the subject, I came across something interesting. Of the letters sent to The Observer, the University of Notre Dame’s student newspaper, 70 percent of the alumni letters opposed having Obama giving the speech. However, 73 percent of letters received from students supported his appearance. Among the 95 seniors who wrote letters, 97 percent supported the president's invitation. Furthermore, in a mock election held by Notre Dame’s student government last October, Obama won 52.6 percent of the vote compared to McCain’s 41.1 percent. It appears as though the greatest opposition is actually from alumni and those outside of the university, not from the students themselves.
I find it encouraging that the majority of students at the University of Notre Dame appear willing to overlook their ideological differences in welcoming President Obama to speak. I hope that at my commencement I am afforded a similarly invaluable experience. President Obama had made it clear he aims to increase acceptance in our nation. The President himself is proof of just how difficult this may be.