Obama's Commencement

For those of you who have not heard yet, President Obama will be delivering the commencement address at the University of Notre Dame. This is sparking some controversy in Catholic circles, as Obama’s pro-choice positions put him in conflict with the Catholic Church’s teachings on life. Some critics argue that the visit from the president is “an outrage and a scandal.” This attitude towards Obama caused one Washington Post columnist to say “enough is enough.” And the name of that columnist may surprise you…Michael Gerson.

Yes, Michael Gerson, as in the former George W. Bush speechwriter who wove religious rhetoric into presidential addresses. The pro-life, anti-stem cell research Michael Gerson. He writes:

The office of the president has meaning and importance that transcend the views of its occupant. Though elected by a part of America, the president becomes a symbol of its whole. The respect we accord him does not imply agreement or endorsement. It reflects our appreciation for constitutional processes. So a presidential visit is always an honor. The televised arrival of Air Force One, the motorcade, the playing of “Hail to the Chief,” the audience standing as the president enters — all these express a proper respect for democratic legitimacy.

If you cannot honor the man, then honor the office. If you cannot honor the office, then one more democratic bond has been severed.

Unfortunately, that is as about as far as Gerson is willing to go. He spends the rest of the article disparaging Obama’s policies towards reproductive health issues. Gerson, like many others, is guilty of falling into the trap of assuming that the only issue Catholic voters care about is abortion. But President Obama won a majority of Catholic voters last fall.

The leadership of Notre Dame deserves credit for extending a commencement invitation to someone who has differences with Catholic teachings. It is the only way for Catholics and non-Catholics to find common ground. The alternative is merely “preaching to the choir,” which further polarizes our body politic and turns religion into a divisive, rather than a unifying, social force.

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