Thursday, May 14, 2009

When Catholics Attack!

There’s a big stink up in South Bend over whether the University of Notre Dame should or shouldn’t have invited the President of the United States (!) to address its graduating class of 2009.

Really, what institution of higher learning wouldn’t love to have a commencement speaker who, aside from being a constitutional scholar, the holder of a juris doctor from Yale, also happens to be a guy with a two-thirds public approval rating in the U.S. (it’s actually higher in many places) provide the keynote to the highlight of its academic year?

Apparently, a bunch of people.

Let’s leave aside for the moment the image of Randall Terry appointing himself spokesman for Notre Dame alumni.

Or Catholicism.

Or any religion based on compassion.

Let’s also leave aside the whole presbyterian (small p) authority over institutions in their dioceses.

Finally, whether or not you think President Obama or Bishop D'Arcy is right on their respective interpretations of the United States Constitution, we’re left with a single question:

What went wrong?

It doesn’t seem that anybody – the president, the bishop, the university – wanted this controversy. The president was reaching out to new audiences and the university was seeking the prestige of just about the best “get” of the commencement season.

So who screwed up and where?

The smart money is on Father John Jenkins. He’s the president of the University of Notre Dame and a heck of a lot smarter than me. Maybe even than you. But here’s where he made the mistake:

Fr. Jenkins is a leader.

One of the cardinal rules of leadership is that those whom you seek to lead must at least understand your decisions. If you get too far out in front of the parade, you’re just a guy with a baton.

Another guy smarter than me, who happens to be an alumnus of Notre Dame, told me that the university sees itself as America’s “elite Catholic university.” He said that the real question is whether they put the emphasis on “elite” or “Catholic.”

Not sure that’s the last word. A university must accept, even invite divergent points of view. That’s what universities do.

It’s an oxymoron to call an institution elite if it turns away the elite.

It’s incongruent to call an institution Catholic – or Christian – if it’s not compassionate.

It’s nonsensical to call an institution a university if it can’t tolerate dissent.

There are more constructive ways to bring prestige to an institution without alienating significant audiences. The good father could have created a forum for discussion of the borders between morality and legality. He could have invited the president to address the faculty or to speak to a collection of legal scholars.

Where Fr. Jenkins missed a step is in awarding a specific honor to an individual that some part – probably a minority but a very vocal one – of his constituency simply cannot abide.

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