I became Catholic last year. After nearly twenty years as a Methodist pastor, I converted. My decision surprised my family and shocked many of my friends. In fact, the decision cost me a number of friendships and opportunities. The decision went against self-interest in many ways and was instead guided toward my pursuit of truth.
The Catholic Church's teachings on life, and its sanctity from conception to a natural death , played an important role in my conversion. Having spent two decades in a denomination that had 1000 people vote every four years to decide whether abortion is moral or immoral, I rejoice to stand now with the Church to hold steady and inviolable the truth that each human life is created in the image of God and therefore has intrinsic value and worth.
Now, Notre Dame has invited President Obama to speak at its graduation ceremonies this year. An institution that likes to view itself as the premier Catholic university in America will welcome the most anti-life, pro-abortion president in America's history. I could not vote for Obama because his anti-life positions were so clear. Notre Dame will host a president whose pro-death mindset is clear: he has reversed the Mexico City policies, he seeks to eliminate conscience restrictions for health care workers, and he endorses embryonic stem cell research. Yet, Notre Dame's President John Jenkins, CSC, has invited Obama to a public platform at Notre Dame.
Jenkins is doing the right thing.
Many of my brothers and sisters who are passionately pro-life can and will disagree. One web site already claims 200,000 signatures to oppose Notre Dame's invitation, Bishop D'Arcy of Indiana has written a firm but kind rebuke to Jenkins based on the teaching of the Catholic bishops, and Randall Terry is already at work organizing to “lead an attack on the ground,” and to “raze hell” against Notre Dame's decision. But again, Jenkins is doing the right thing in inviting the President to Notre Dame.
How can this be? First, Jesus' fundamental instruction to His followers is to “love your neighbor,” including the difficult “love your enemies” in that teaching. All God's children, the born and the unborn, are my neighbors, but so too is President Obama. To love my neighbor and my enemy, I first have to be willing to show him grace and hospitality even when I know that he is wrong. To cut off the conversation and to throw up one's hands into his face accomplishes nothing other than making myself feel better for being right. But being right is not always enough. As the apostle Paul reminds us: knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Love is the more excellent way. I am called to be loving even more than to be right. In fact, Cardinal Francis George, the leader of American bishops, recently went and spoke personally with President Obama, an act I suspect had as much love in it as it did instruction.
Second, by inviting Obama, Notre Dame now holds an extraordinary opportunity to lead a new approach in talking with the president. The administration, faculty, staff, and students at Notre Dame can demonstrate that they truly are a Catholic institution. How so? By welcoming President Obama at a reception hosted by students who were originally scheduled to be aborted by their mothers. Imagine the scene as the President of the United States meets students of all ages, including some from Notre Dame itself, who share with him how glad they are that their mothers changed their minds. Their beaming smiles pierce his eyes, and begin the work of softening his heart.
This simple reception humanizes the case. The conversation moves beyond theory into reality. What better way to open the eyes of Obama than by greeting him with the joyful smiles of live humans who fortunately were not seen by their mothers as “punishment” for a one-night stand but rather as a gift from God, a life to be welcomed and embraced? This experience is the embodiment of showing grace to a misguided, sitting president. Confront moral error with the very real presence of children. In accomplishing only this much, Notre Dame will have demonstrated its own faith and also pioneered a new tack in changing the heart of our pro-abortion president.
Imagine the experience George Wallace or Bull Connor might have had if they had been welcomed by the administration and graduates of Morehouse College, say in 1963. Imagine their hearts, like the Grinch's minute raisin of a heart, beginning to show new life and hope as they looked into the eyes of men graduating from America's premier African-American college. Might that not have been a new humanizing arrow in the non-violent quiver of the civil rights movement? A fresh way of doing to others what you would like them to do unto you – namely, to treat you as fully human?
Finally, Notre Dame has a standing tradition of inviting new presidents to speak at the university's graduations. President Carter spoke in 1977, Reagan in 1981, and George W. Bush in 2001. With all due respect, neither President Carter's pro-abortion stance nor President Bush's position in favor of the death penalty seemed to provoke much protest or petitioning. Perhaps that is because we somehow have lost the ability now to remember that a university is, after all, a place of intellectual inquiry. And conversation with those who disagree is a prerequisite for any real inquiry and the pursuit of truth. Perhaps, even more so, the community of Notre Dame sought to demonstrate a respect for the office of the President of the United States and an appreciation for being able to personalize the Catholic perspective with each president.
When President Bush spoke at Furman University's graduation last year, many of the faculty members behaved in bush-league fashion. Some boycotted, others stood with printed T-shirts at the back of the crowd in protest. Few treated the president with respect, dignity, or grace. All claimed to advocate for freedom of speech and freedom of dissent, but few were actually willing to listen to the one with whom they were dissenting. In other words, they failed the first test of academic freedom.
In doing so, they also failed the first test of faith: love. Here's hoping that Notre Dame learns the lesson and embodies a new way of loving neighbors and loving enemies in the coming months. The university has an opportunity to live up to its name or into its shame.