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Jenkins addresses Commencement issues in letter to students

Aaron Steiner | Thursday, August 13, 2009

University President Fr. John Jenkins sent a letter dated May 11 to all Notre Dame graduates, addressing the controversy that has erupted over his invitation to President Barack Obama to give the principal address and receive an honorary degree at this Sunday’s Commencement. In the letter he wrote that Notre Dame must be a crossroads “where people of good will are received with charity, are able to speak, be heard, and engage in responsible and reasoned dialogue.”

University spokesman Dennis Brown said Jenkins does not normally send such a letter to graduates, but “given the unusual nature [of their Commencement] he thought that it would be appropriate to reach out the seniors.”

In a copy of the letter obtained by The Observer Tuesday, Jenkins wrote he hoped the Obama visit would lead to “broader engagement on issues of importance to the country and of deep significance to Catholics.

“Ultimately I hope that the conversations and the good will that come from this day will contribute to closer relations between Catholics and public officials who make decisions on matters of human life and human dignity,” he wrote.

Jenkins addressed his critics in the letter, specifically those who have called into question the administration’s stance on life issues.

“I am saddened that many friends of Notre Dame have suggested that our invitation to President Obama indicates ambiguity in our position on matters of Catholic teaching. The University and I are unequivocally committed to the sanctity of human life and to its protection from conception to natural birth,” he wrote.

He also referenced the University’s long history of conferring honorary degrees on U.S. Presidents in the letter. Obama will be the ninth president to receive a degree from Notre Dame.

“It has never been a political statement or an endorsement of policy,” Jenkins said of the honorary degrees. “It is the University’s expression of respect for the leader of the nation and the Office of the President. In the Catholic tradition, our first allegiance is to God in Christ, yet we are called to respect, participate in, and contribute to the wider society.

“As St. Peter wrote (I Pt. 2:17), we should honor the leader who upholds the secular order,” Jenkins wrote.

He wrote of what he called an “obligation” for an institution like Notre Dame to “engage the culture.”

“[A] Catholic university has a special obligation not just to honor the leader but to engage the culture,” he wrote. He specifically wrote about his time as an undergraduate, when Fr. Theodore Hesburgh was University president, writing that Hesburgh called Notre Dame “both a lighthouse and a crossroads.

“As a lighthouse, we strive to stand apart and be different, illuminating issues with the moral and spiritual wisdom of the Catholic tradition. Yet, we must also be a crossroads through which pass people of many different perspectives, backgrounds, faiths, and cultures,” he wrote. “At this crossroads, we must be a place where people of good will are received with charity, are able to speak, be heard, and engage in responsible and reasoned dialogue.”

Jenkins also told graduates that he recognized the invitation to Obama has triggered a debate that they have been a part of.

“In many cases, the debate has grown heated, even between people who agree completely on Church teaching regarding the sanctity of human life, who agree completely that we should work for change – and differ only on how we should work for change,” he wrote.

Jenkins said he has seen the graduates “observed, interviewed, and evaluated” by many people, in addition to discussing the decision among themselves.

“You engaged each other with passion, intelligence and respect. And I saw no sign that your differences led to division,” he wrote. “You inspire me. We need the wider society to be more like you; it is good that we are sending you into the world on Sunday.”

Jenkins told graduates “there will, no doubt, be much attention on your Commencement” in the letter.

“Remember, though, that this is your day. … You are the ones we celebrate and applaud,” he wrote.