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Lay down your stones

Cecilia H. Prinster | Wednesday, April 8, 2009

In my role as the current president of the Notre Dame Alumni Association, many concerned alumni have called and written me about the upcoming visit of President Obama to Notre Dame as Commencement speaker. While I don’t speak for the Alumni Association or its Board of Directors, I do have a unique window on this controversy that has given me cause for reflection. Those who object to the visit cite the grave differences between Mr. Obama and Notre Dame regarding abortion rights because our Catholic faith unequivocally opposes abortion. However, we must also be mindful of Catholic teaching in other areas pertaining to human dignity in which we have a good deal in common with the president.

In recent centuries, the Popes and the Bishops have put forth a body of writings – papal encyclicals and bishops’ pastoral letters – that guide Catholics on matters of social and moral conduct in the world. These official writings, collectively referred to as Catholic social teaching, guide us on the meaning of human dignity and other core Catholic values such as solidarity with the poor, economic justice and the role of markets, caring for God’s creation, just war and the challenge of peace and the dignity of work and workers’ rights. Catholic social teaching embraces modern life “from womb to tomb” and challenges us to ask the hard questions that Jesus would have asked if he walked in our shoes today.

“Gaudium et Spes” is the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World from Vatican II. In it, the protection of life is at the forefront, but the fostering of a dignified life is given equal weight. It speaks of “the sublime dignity of human persons, … whose rights and duties are universal and inviolable,” and who therefore are entitled to “everything necessary for living a life truly human, such as food, clothing, shelter, … education [and] employment.” Conversely, it condemns “whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit.” (No. 26) Similarly, in “A Catholic Framework for Economic Life,” the U.S. Catholic Bishops give us principles to guide our economic policies which must be judged by how they protect the life and dignity of the human person, especially the poor and the vulnerable. It affirms that people have a right to the basic necessities of life, including health care, a safe environment, just wages and benefits, decent working conditions and the right to join unions or other workers’ associations.

The passages above resonate deeply with issues of human dignity in Catholic Social Teaching that President Obama is addressing courageously, including: abolishing the “arbitrary imprisonment” and “torments inflicted on the body or mind” at Guantanamo, prioritizing education, jobs and housing and boldly reforming our economic system to ensure that working people are not “mere tools for profit.” He is tackling health care reform, environmental stewardship and economic security, all of which raise the possibility of a more dignified life for even the least among us.

In this season of Lent, we are reminded that we are all sinners; our world is complex and imperfect; and only God can reconcile our deepest contradictions and heal our most painful wounds. Although we disagree with Mr. Obama on some core issues, we must not condemn. We must be like the elders who laid down their stones and walked away from the adulterous woman when Jesus challenged them by saying, “He that has not sinned may cast the first stone.” None of us is pure in our adherence to our Catholic principles, and each of us falls short in some way of living up to our Notre Dame ideals.

President Obama was elected in a free and fair election and is Commander-in-Chief of our nation’s military that includes many Notre Dame alumni and students. Notre Dame has a tradition of inviting Presidents to be Commencement speakers. President Obama has been invited and he will come to Notre Dame on May 17. When he does, we would do well to heed another of the precepts of “Gaudium et Spes:”

“Respect and love ought to be extended also to those who think or act differently than we do in social, political and even religious matters. In fact, the more deeply we come to understand their ways of thinking through such courtesy and love, the more easily will we be able to enter into dialogue with them.”

With this approach, this Commencement will be the beginning of a constructive engagement with the president on the issues where we are aligned as well as on those where we disagree.

Yours in Notre Dame.

Cecilia H. Prinster, class of 1976, is president of the Notre Dame Alumni Association. She can be contacted at ceylp@yahoo.com

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

necessarily those of The Observer