The talk at Notre Dame

By Frank Wessling

Some Catholics are furious at the University of Notre Dame for inviting President Barack Obama to give the commencement address to this year’s graduating class and receive an honorary degree. The thinking is that this country’s best known Catholic school should not be honoring someone who represents a political stance allowing easy abortion and the use of human embryos for stem cell research.

It certainly does not make a comfortable fit — Notre Dame and a president cheered by the single-issue “reproductive rights” crowd. The honorary degree is especially puzzling. Obama could have been invited to speak, as Notre Dame has done with nearly all recent presidents, but the explicit honor of draping him with the school’s colors is an unnecessary step too far.

At least wait a year or two or three until this president has a chance to truly distinguish himself in the arts of public administration and political leadership. If he does, then Notre Dame has some reasonable context for an honor. It could point to achievement that balances to some degree the odious politics of abortion rights represented by the recipient.

There is another danger in this controversy, beyond the fear that Notre Dame may be losing its Catholic character. In sharply focusing our religious concern on the issue of abortion, many Catholics may forget what a great university does. It tries to be a home for all that the intellect can grasp. It takes in heretics of all kinds in order to hold them to the bar of reason. It lets the most awful thoughts share space with the most sublime in order to assure a constant opening to all truth.

A university is a place and a company of people that accepts the connection between freedom of inquiry and expression and the healthy growth of humanity itself. Too many Catholics know nothing of this tradition in the church itself, but it is especially part of our story from the 13th-century days of St. Thomas Aquinas debating at the University of Paris while fending off charges of heresy to the latest blow-up over something done at Notre Dame — or Georgetown University or Boston College or St. Ambrose University in Davenport.

Our Catholic institutions of higher learning must be careful to maintain the faith side of their faith-and-reason balancing act. The larger Catholic community also must remember that a university is neither a kindergarten nor a catechetical institute. As a place that encourages all honest inquiry, it has its own unique value. Notre Dame offers an example with its recent hosting of a conference on the Islamic holy book, the Koran.

A little context is needed here. For Christians, faith and worship are focused on and through a person, Jesus. For Muslims and their Islamic faith, the focus is a collection of writings in Arabic, the sacred Koran. The understanding and use of the Koran is a delicate, highly charged emotional issue in Islam. Study of it as a historical document subject to rational analysis is resisted as a violation of its nature as God speaking. Thus, it is very difficult, even dangerous, for moderate Islamic scholars to counter the influence of the radically conservative Muslim establishment and the violent fringe that feeds on some of its teachings.

Last week, from April 19 to 21, Notre Dame held a conference on “The Koran in its Historical Context,” with scholars from the Muslim world able to express their ideas and share their work in a way they could not do in their home countries. Not that Notre Dame is a party to the subversion of Islam, as extremists might say. Rather, the American Catholic campus simply proved its value as safe ground for the honest exploration of religious values and their application in life today.

Some day in the future when we no longer hear about women blanketed, stoned and kept out of sight because of Islamic law; when there are no more “martyrs” blowing up themselves and innocent bystanders for a dream of heavenly bliss with 72 virgins; when the light of human flourishing in Islamic faith is allowed to overshadow the dark impulses, the University of Notre Dame will deserve to be remembered for its pioneering work to help liberate a better truth.

For all who are unhappy about the invitation to President Obama, keep in mind that a university is not meant to be a tidy place of comfortable truths. It will always be reaching beyond its grasp, and sometimes stumble. 

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