#23 – Dick Bernard: President Obama at Notre Dame University May 17, 2009

A beautiful Sunday afternoon was very tempting for a good long walk, but I knew that the long anticipated appearance of Barack Obama at Notre Dame was soon to begin, so I delayed the walk and watched the proceedings live on Notre Dame’s website, from the procession of graduates into the fieldhouse, to the remarks following President Obama’s speech.


It was a truly remarkable afternoon: grist for an entire semester course condensed into less than two hours of time.


I would diminish the event by trying to summarize it.  The most gifted commentators and film editors will similarly diminish it.  It has to be watched. 


Those who wish can likely view, or view for a second time, the entire proceedings at the Notre Dame website http://www.nd.edu/.  To get the entire perspective, you really need to watch the proceedings, including the opening prayer, and the student valedictory by a remarkable student, E. Brennan Bollman.


For those unable to see it all, it included a history lesson or two or three: the President noted (to no applause – doubtless because it caught a young audience unawares) that today was the 55th anniversary of Brown vs Board of Education, the landmark civil rights case.  And at the end of his speech, the President was presented a photo of former Notre Dame President Theodore Hesburgh with Martin Luther King in Chicago in 1965.  Hesburgh was one of the giants of the civil rights era.  He was at the commencement, nearing his 92nd birthday. 


As a lifelong Catholic I could feel pride at the long history of my Church as a champion of social justice.  At points in my life I benefitted from that role.  As a person who brushed up close against the possibility of abortion during my first wife’s last months on earth in the spring and summer of 1965, and is unalterably pro-choice because of my personal experience, I listened closely for, and heard, acknowledgement of the difficulties inherent in adopting absolute right and wrong positions.  But I heard respect for differing opinions from both Obama and the University of Our Lady (Notre Dame).


Obama used the Abortion word on the Notre Dame stage, and handled the sensitive matter in a sensitive way.  But he was no less classy than the Notre Dame officials. 


There was one – or was it several – very loud hecklers early in the speech.  An overwhelming student led chant drowned them out. 


I was distracted early on by a grim looking professor like figure behind President Obama on the stage.  This guy had on all the robes, but when others applauded, he stood stone-like.  I finally decided that he was probably Secret Service.  Maybe someone will expand on that presumption of mine.


Knowing a little about such things work, my guess is that all of the VIPS, Obama, the President of Notre Dame, Father Hesburgh and others, knew before a single word was uttered what at minimum the gist of each others talk would be.  This was not a time or a place for surprises.


Going in everyone doubtless knew that this wasn’t a serious issue within the Catholic Church.  Only about 20% of the Bishops united in opposition to Obama’s appearance; over 60% of Catholics approved.  In my own Catholic Church, this morning, there was not a single word verbally or in print about the conflict, nor did the local diocesan paper in its most recent edition carry a single word about it (though I suspect the local Archbishop was among the 20% who were against Obama’s appearance).* 


And to the best of my knowledge Rome was silent.   Its silence spoke volumes.


For those who value Hostility around a controversial and difficult issue, today was not a good day.  For those who are interested in Healing, today was a solid start.


I went for my walk.  And saw a little kid with his Mom, wearing a Notre Dame tee-shirt.  A good omen.


One day later – May 18, 2009


* I went back to the Archdiocesan paper and found I was in error on this sentence.  Indeed the Archbishop’s column mentioned the event without mentioning either the speaker or the institution, but one had to be a very diligent reader of the weekly newspaper and interested in the event to figure out what the Archbishop was talking about.  The meat of the column was buried in the inside back page of the newspaper.  Such placement was likely intentional.  The entire column is accessible here http://tinyurl.com/ovhszz. 


In his column, the Archbishop appears to acknowledge the need to dialogue “with those who disagree” with the Church’s stand.  The continuing dilemma is how there can be “dialogue” with someone who not only claims the truth but claims that the official position of the Church is the only correct one and says that “[t]here can be no compromise”.  Dialogue does not presume closed minds in a conversation, or “lines drawn in the sand”.  But no openness to other points of view is conveyed whatsoever. The Archbishop who wrote the column for his newspaper has chosen, apparently deliberately, to hide his position from all but those who most likely fervently agree with him.  He can demonstrate that he took a hard position on the issue, without much risk that anyone will notice.


Two days later – May 19, 2009


Out of curiosity I decided to look at the several issues of the Archdiocesan newspaper which were published the last several weeks before the speech.  I picked up a sense of editorial meetings concerning “what shall we say about this?” with an answer “as little as possible”, from the small amount of newsprint devoted to the Obama appearance.  The most interesting, and perhaps most revealing, article was a short one on April 16, where it was reported that the local South Bend Bishop “advised Catholics to not attend [the] demonstrations”.  Whatever the real intent was, my own perception was that, even by early April, the powers-that-be knew that the general church membership was not with them regarding Obama’s visit to Notre Dame, and the advisory was a clever PR creation to provide a cover story.  But that is just my individual perception.  I have learned over the years that it is useful to have a healthy skepticism about official versions of events and their meaning.


Four days later – May 21, 2009


The Archdiocesan newspaper carried two front page “below the fold” stories about the events at Notre Dame.  They were equal in length: one focusing on Obama’s remarks; the other on the protests.  On page 6 was a half-page “Guest Editoria” “It’s not only Obama who needs to examine conscience” which, first, acknowledged what every Catholic knows: that the church is not a monolith where everyone thinks alike; but nonetheless contended that genuine Catholics must follow the official Church teaching.