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Panel discusses Obama invitation, degree

Madeline Buckley | Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The meaning of an honorary degree given by a Catholic university – and whether the award indicates support for some or all of the recipient’s positions – was questioned by students Tuesday in a debate over the University’s invitation to Obama to deliver the 2009 Commencement address.

Seniors Michael Angulo and Briana Miller argued Obama should be honored by the University for his record of public service while junior John Gerardi and fifth-year senior John Souder said Obama’s stance on abortion is “intrinsically evil,” and awarding him an honorary degree suggests support for that position.

The debate, sponsored by the College of Arts & Letters, gave students an opportunity to discuss the controversy over Obama “openly and candidly,” moderator Colleen Kelly, a junior, said.

“I understand how many disapprove of Obama, yet I struggle, and have always struggled, with the notion that our support of a politician should boil down to one issue,” Angulo said.

He cited Obama’s executive order to shut down Guantanamo Bay military prison and his work to expand health care for children as reasons Obama should be honored by a Catholic university – even though the Church disagrees with his position on abortion.

Souder said bestowing an honorary degree implies that the recipient’s service to the law has been “good and exemplary.”

“His position, I think, has been in promotion of something gravely evil,” he said.

Gerardi said he believes the dignity of the life of the unborn comes before other social justice issues, claiming that, without the right to life, all other rights “fall to pieces.”

Miller countered that honoring a politician based on one issue isn’t realistic and an honorary degree should be based on the recipient’s body of work as a whole.

“For me, this is very inconsistent, especially taking into account the sanctity of life,” she said.

Citing Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush as past Notre Dame Commencement speakers, Angulo said Notre Dame has a tradition honoring the nation’s leaders.

“It isn’t just like all of a sudden Jenkins said, ‘I really like Obama, we should get him,'” he said. “Notre Dame has a tradition.”

Angulo argued that no presidential speaker on campus could have a social policy record that would fulfill all the requirements of the Church and Catholic Social Teaching.

“We need to look at the realities. Abortions don’t happen in a vacuum” he said. “Somehow we have to deal with the situation we’ve got.”

He said the focus should be on Obama’s work to cultivate a society where abortions don’t happen, such as his work to reform the health care system and public education.

Gerardi said the issue comes down to whether or not one believes abortion is taking the life of human being.

“There’s one glaring hole in this holistic policy, and that’s abortion,” he said. “If you believe it ends the life of a human, then this takes on a whole new political debate.”

While he said there are many other social justice reforms that need to be undertaken to lower the number of abortions, Gerardi said the first step is changing the law.

“After the law passed, the numbers [of abortions] increased tenfold,” he said.

Souder said he does not believe the University invited Obama to create dialogue.

“Clearly, Notre Dame is benefiting in some ways,” he said. “Personally, I don’t think the University needs to be in the business of promoting itself so much.”

Gerardi said the invitation to Obama is not in the spirit of dialogue and the dialogue of the students on the matter will not influence the president.

“This is a speech. It’s a monologue,” he said. “We, sitting around here talking about this, aren’t going to change the law.”

Angulo disagreed.

“We can vote them in. We can vote them out,” he said. “That’s what democracy is all about.”