Obama Unwelcome Choice as Commencement Speaker at Notre Dame
Top honoree rejects recognition based on choice of Obama as graduation speaker.
It is not often that someone turns down a prestigious award from a college like Notre Dame.
But then again, it is equally unusual that the presence of a newly-elected, highly-popular president, would be the catalyst for rejecting such an honor.
But that is precisely what Harvard Law professor Mary Ann Glendon has done. Citing the school’s invitation to Barack Obama to deliver the 2009 commencement address and plan to award the president an honorary degree, Glendon has politely said thanks, but no thanks to the university.
The issue centers upon the conflicting position of Catholics and the president on the issue of abortion.
In December, Glendon, a former ambassador to the Vatican and a consultant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had been selected to receive the 2009 Laetare Medal. Described by the university as the “most prestigious award given to Catholics” yearly, the medal recognizes those “whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the Church and enriched the heritage of humanity.”
Glendon, chosen as commencement speaker and given an honorary degree from Notre Dame in 1996, was at first pleased to learn of her selection last December. However, when she became aware that Obama was selected to receive an honorary doctorate and given the opportunity to give the commencement address, she found herself extremely dismayed.
From Critic to Absentee
Still, it appears that Glendon was set to attend, at least initially. Reports had the Harvard Law professor attending the ceremony and accepting her award so that she could take advantage of her opportunity to provide public remarks to criticize the president’s position.
But later, when it appeared that Notre Dame might utilize her presence at graduation as a step towards defending the school’s choice of Obama as commencement speaker, Glendon decided to reject the prestigious honor.
Directly citing the abortion issue, Glendon wrote in her university rejection letter that the choice demonstrated “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.'”
Moreover, in her letter to Rev. John I. Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president, she noted that the university appeared to be seeking to use her to balance off the more recent, unpopular selection of Obama.
She first cited one of the Notre Dame talking points regarding the matter:
“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.”
Then soundly rejected the idea that commencement was a place for dissenting views to be aired. She wrote:
“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.”
Tough Position for the President
Given Obama’s ability to see the large picture, the rejection by Glendon, a professor at the president’s alma mater, has to be upsetting to him personally. In addition, the fact that such a prestigious honor, awarded prior to his being chosen to speak, would be summarily rejected on account of his being selected definitely puts the president in a very difficult position.
It is perhaps too late for either Notre Dame or the president to rescind. Most notably, if he does preside at commencement as expected, Obama will need all of his rhetorical skills and speech writing talents to ensure his presence does not undermine the spirit of the day for those graduating.