The Democratic Virtues of Notre Dame
Notre Dame Commencement 2009
by Kathleen Sprows Cummings
What a pleasure to walk across the quad this morning without having to keep my eyes downcast. The “abortion plane,” the one towing a banner with a graphic picture of a 10-week aborted fetus, is gone now, after having circled Notre Dame’s campus for weeks on end.
Participating in yesterday’s commencement—I was seated with the faculty about 100 feet from the stage—was both exhilarating and exhausting. The nervous tension before and during the event was unbelievable. There was a Secret Service agent disguised in academic garb (the earpiece was a dead giveaway) seated in the row in front of me, and U.S. Marshalls posted throughout the arena never stopped scanning the crowd for threats. Worst of all were the hecklers at the beginning of the President’s speech, whose comments and subsequent removal were far more disturbing in person than they appeared to be on television.
We had all heard that Randall Terry’s group had obtained tickets, but we didn’t know how many of them there would be, or whether there would be disruptions throughout the speech, or how exactly the crowd would respond. It was a relief after the first five minutes passed, when we could all really start to listen to the President’s marvelous speech (the New York Times reports on it here). And when that was over, we could go about the business that brought us all there in the first place, honoring and celebrating Notre Dame’s class of 2009.
There is no question that the last six weeks have been the most painful in my life as a faithful Catholic. Two weeks ago my daughter’s second grade class held their First Communion retreat on campus, and the joy of participating in that event was overshadowed by worries that the abortion plane would disrupt our nature walk, or that I wouldn’t be able to avoid the demonstrators and their placards as I drove my group back to school. How, after all, does one explain dismembered fetuses, or baby dolls covered in blood, to a group of eight year olds?
But if the Obama controversy has saddened me as a person of faith, it has heartened me as a teacher and scholar of American Catholicism. The folks in administration and development will almost certainly grimace if they read this, but on balance this episode made my professional life, at least, a whole lot LESS complicated. I always search for opportunities to engage past and present in the classroom, and so I was delighted when, early in the semester, Kathleen Sebelius’ nomination for Secretary of Health and Human Services was announced the day before we were scheduled to discuss the election of 1928.
But if I was pleased with the thoughtful discussion about Catholics in American public life that Sebelius’ nomination generated, I was astounded by the level of intellectual engagement that characterized our discussions of the Obama controversy. As a prelude to those discussions, we read and analyzed a host of primary documents, ranging from Monsignor John Tracy Ellis’ 1955 critique of Catholic intellectual life to the 1968 Land-O-Lakes Statement of Catholic Higher Education, from Mario Cuomo’s 1984 speech at Notre Dame to the USCCB’s statement on Faithful Citizenship. We debated what the controversy revealed about faith and public life, dissent, episcopal authority, Catholic education, and electoral politics in the post-Vatican II American church. My students came to these discussions from a variety of ideological viewpoints, yet our conversations were invariably characterized by respect and by a sincere desire to understand what developments over the last half-century have brought us to this moment in American Catholicism.
On my way home from work each day, I couldn’t help but marvel at the contrast between our provocative discussions and the daily circus staged by protestors at Notre Dame’s Main Gate. I have never felt more privileged to be a faculty member at the University of Notre Dame than I have been this semester, and I was even prouder during yesterday’s ceremony. Between the legacy of Father Ted Hesburgh, evoked so elegantly by President Obama, and the leadership and courage of Father John Jenkins, displayed so prominently in his own remarkable speech, I was repeatedly moved to tears. I plan to use both speeches as a springboard to discussion in my classes next year, and there is much more that can and will be said about them. Today, though, I am just grateful it is a quiet and happy day at Notre Dame, with nothing but blue skies overhead.