This week, Learned Hand Professor of Law Mary Ann Glendon threw down the gauntlet in the ongoing debate about whether it was improper for the University of Notre Dame, a Catholic school, to invite President Barack Obama ’91, long an advocate of abortion rights, to speak at the University’s commencement.
Glendon, who served as Ambassador to the Vatican under President George W. Bush, declined Notre Dame’s prestigious Laetare Medal, which was to be awarded at the same commencement ceremony. She set forth her reasoning in a letter to Reverend John Jenkins, President of Notre Dame, which is printed below in its entirety.
“Dear Father Jenkins,
When you informed me in December 2008 that I had been selected to receive Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal, I was profoundly moved. I treasure the memory of receiving an honorary degree from Notre Dame in 1996, and I have always felt honored that the commencement speech I gave that year was included in the anthology of Notre Dame’s most memorable commencement speeches. So I immediately began working on an acceptance speech that I hoped would be worthy of the occasion, of the honor of the medal, and of your students and faculty.
Last month, when you called to tell me that the commencement speech was to be given by President Obama, I mentioned to you that I would have to rewrite my speech. Over the ensuing weeks, the task that once seemed so delightful has been complicated by a number of factors.
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.
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 US 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.
Finally, with recent news reports that other Catholic schools are similarly choosing to disregard the Bishops’ guidelines, I am concerned that Notre Dame’s example could have an unfortunate ripple effect.
It is with great sadness, therefore, that I have concluded that I cannot accept the Laetare Medal or participate in the May 17 graduation ceremony.
In order to avoid the inevitable speculation about the reasons for my decision, I will release this letter to the press, but I do not plan to make any further comment on the matter at this time.”
In response, Notre Dame issued a statement, which read, in part:
“Presidents from both parties have come to Notre Dame for decades to speak to our graduates – and to our nation and world – about a wide range of pressing issues – from foreign policy to poverty, from societal transformation to social service. We are delighted that President Obama will follow in this long tradition of speaking from Notre Dame on issues of substance and significance…
Of course, this does not mean we support all of his positions. 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. Yet, we see his visit as a basis for further positive engagement.”
President Obama will speak to Notre Dame graduates on May 17.