The Observer is a student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame, Saint Mary's & Holy Cross. Learn about us.



Jenkins praised by Obama, Burish; University president lauds Obama

Jenn Metz | Sunday, May 17, 2009

  Both President Barack Obama and University Provost Thomas Burish praised University President Fr. John Jenkins’ courage in the face of the almost two-month controversy surrounding Sunday’s Commencement.

Jenkins received a standing ovation from the audience after Burish commended the University president’s handling of the backlash related to the decision to invite and award an honorary degree to the pro-choice Obama.

“Fr. John had many opportunities to be front and center, but he always kept the focus on you the graduates and your families,” Burish said to the Class of 2009.

Jenkins, who conferred degrees on the first class to graduate after four years under solely his leadership, was elected a Senior Fellow of the Class of 2009 Thursday, Burish said, an announcement that resulted in a second standing ovation for Jenkins.

Obama also lauded Jenkins for his leadership of the University in his address.

“You are doing an outstanding job as president of this extraordinary institution. Your continued and courageous and contagious commitment to honest, thoughtful dialogue is an inspiration to us all,” Obama said.

The University president’s remarks and introduction of Obama, perhaps the defining speech of his career, did not shy away from the firestorm that erupted after the initial announcement of the 2009 University Commencement speaker and the differing opinions of the Church and the president on the protection of life.

Jenkins described Notre Dame’s hope for the 2009 graduates, as well as recognized they are entering a world that is “torn by division.”

“Differences must be acknowledged, and in some cases cherished,” Jenkins said, expressing a sentiment that was later echoed in Obama’s address. “But too often differences lead to pride in self and contempt for others, until two sides – taking opposing views on the same difference – demonize each other. Whether the difference is political, religious, racial, or national – trust falls, anger rises, and cooperation ends … even for the sake of causes all sides care about.”

Jenkins said “the supreme challenge of this age” is “easing the hateful divisions between human beings.”

“If we can solve this problem,” he said, “we have a chance to come together and solve all others.”

Notre Dame, as a Catholic university, is “specially called,” Jenkins said, to meet this challenge.

“We are called to serve each community of which we’re a part, and this call is captured in the motto over the door of the east nave of the Basilica: ‘God, Country, Notre Dame,” Jenkins said.

He said in serving the church, the University can “persuade believers by appeals to both faith and reason.”

“As we serve our country, we will be motivated by faith, but we cannot appeal only to faith. We must also engage in dialogue that appeals to reason that all can accept,” Jenkins said.

Quoting Pope Benedict XVI from his 2008 remarks delivered on the South Lawn of the White House, Jenkins said “genuine faith does not inhibit the use of reason; it purifies it of pride and distorting self-interest.

“Tapping the full potential of human reason to seek God and serve humanity is a central mission of the Catholic Church,” he said. “The natural place for the Church to pursue this mission is a Catholic university.”

Graduates of Notre Dame, following in an academic tradition spanning nearly one thousand years, Jenkins said, go forth with the duty to “serve the common good.”

Out of this duty, he said, “we seek to foster dialogue with all people of good will, regardless of faith, background or perspective. We will listen to all vies, and always bear passionate witness for what we believe.

“Insofar as we play this role, we can be what Pope John Paul II said a Catholic university is meant to be – ‘a primary and privileged place for a fruitful dialogue between the Gospel and culture.'”

Addressing the attention surrounding Obama’s visit to the University, Jenkins said “we honor all people of good will who have come to this discussion respectfully and out of deeply held conviction.”

He said the majority of the debate about the president’s visit had centered on Notre Dame’s decision to invite and honor Obama, while “less attention has been focused on the president’s decision to accept.”

The crowd erupted in applause at these words, and Jenkins made clear the invitation to Obama does not signal agreement on all of the president’s stances.

“President Obama has come to Notre Dame, though he knows full well that we are fully supportive of Church teaching on the sanctity of human life, and we oppose his policies on abortion and embryonic stem cell research,” Jenkins said, again interrupted by applause.

“Others might have avoided this venue for that reason,” he said, “But president Obama is not someone who stops talking to those who differ with him.”

Jenkins turned to address Obama directly after again pausing for applause.

“Mr. President: This is a principle we share,” he said.

Quoting a pastoral constitution from the Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, which states, “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,” Jenkins said that in order to begin that process, “we can start by acknowledging what is honorable in others.”

Praising the president for “the qualities and accomplishments the American people admired in him when they elected him,” Jenkins closed his remarks by introducing Obama to the crowd.