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Obama, protesters and my graduation

Andrew Nesi | Thursday, March 26, 2009

Randall Terry is the Al Sharpton of the anti-abortion movement, but with a few more arrests.

That is, Terry – who runs the (really, really) pro-life group Operation Rescue – makes incendiary statements that, for better or worse, garner far more media attention than they deserve.

It’s no surprise, then, that somewhere between likening President Obama speaking at Commencement to the “cultural rape of true Catholicity” and warning that he will “lead an attack on the ground” in South Bend, Terry told The Observer this week, “We will recruit people from all of the country, and we will make this a circus.”

Bad news for you, Randall: We’re way ahead of you. Anytime Fox News puts your story on the front page, P.T. Barnum’s got nothin’ on you.

This is what it must have been like to go to school in the 60s and 70s.

Of course, graduation is a day to celebrate my class and those who have supported us for four years. But it’s also a day to celebrate our education, this University and its unique place in American and Catholic culture.

My education at Notre Dame has been the social, political and Catholic controversies that we consistently witness and participate in. We’re supposed to be the place where the Catholic Church does its thinking. And whether it’s the “Vagina Monologues,” our non-discrimination clause or white crosses on the Quad every year, a thinking Church has been controversial and, at times, vitriolic.

This is what Notre Dame has forced me to realize: The dichotomy between being “Catholic” and being a “University” is false. We don’t have to pick one. We serve our Catholic mission by living our University mission.

Graduation is not a time to celebrate the end of our education. It’s a day to continue it. That’s why we need to embrace the idea that President Obama should be welcome to speak before our graduating class. But that’s also why we need to welcome the scores of protesters, Viewpoint letters and anti-Obama public statements by professors, alumni and, most importantly, seniors alike. To silence either side would be to undermine the experience of unique education we’ve gotten for four years and fundamentally misunderstand the relationship between being Catholic and being a University.

Contrary to a number of the letters we’ve seen on these pages in the last few days, we shouldn’t be “embarrassed” by the presence of a pro-choice politician on our graduation stage, nor should we be “embarrassed” by the calls to keep a pro-choice politician off our stage. We shouldn’t view protesters as “hijacking” our graduation. Yes, I want protesters yelling at me on the day of my graduation, showing graphic pictures of aborted fetuses, because Notre Dame has taught me that to avoid debate – as visceral as it may be – is to lack strength in my own convictions.

This isn’t an empty paean to relativism and tolerance. I have no problem picking a “right” side: of course President Obama should speak at my graduation, and – like it or not – like many of my fellow graduates, I believe in most things he stands for.

But that’s not the point. Welcoming all to our campus and allowing this critical Catholic debate to play out here are not just numb tolerance. They’re an all-too-rare opportunity to live out the mission of our University in a prominent, public way.

This shouldn’t be dismissed as a “Viewpoint War,” as if we were debating the relative merits of pirates or an(other) off-color comic about Saint Mary’s. On both sides, this is Notre Dame at her best – actively navigating the place of the Church in education, and the role of religion in a world too often ignorant of its extraordinary power for good and for evil.

We should welcome organized, graphic protests outside, someplace students, guests and, yes, media can’t miss them.

We should welcome it when kids turn their backs to the President and boo, as some inevitably will.

We should welcome parents, scholars and Bishops to denounce the very existence of the speech as embarrassing and un-Catholic.

But for the same reason, we should welcome President Obama to stand at the podium and speak to us.

We should welcome Mary Ann Glendon, a pro-life Catholic and Harvard Law professor, to stand next to him and speak to us.

We should welcome Notre Dame to retake its rightful position as a public place where the Church does its thinking.

I’ll walk at graduation proud, armed with the knowledge that the “circus” around me is exactly what makes this University so important, and so special.

Andrew Nesi is a senior American Studies major from Fairfield, Conn. He’s eager for your response. He can be reached at anesi@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.