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Jenkins must invite Trump to commencement

| Friday, January 20, 2017

In an early December interview with The Observer, University President Fr. John Jenkins reflected on a myriad of reasons to either ignore or invite incoming President-elect Donald Trump to speak at Commencement in May. Jenkins — University president since 2005, who has personally only invited President Barack Obama in 2009 amidst denunciations from anti-abortion rights cardinals and bishops as well as alumni lobbying to reverse the invitation — said that it would be good to have the new president on campus in 2017, regardless of his views. “I do think the elected leader of the nation should be listened to,” Jenkins summarized.

However, Jenkins hedged his thought by citing unprecedented high levels of political acrimony throughout the recent campaign when he countered, “At the same time, the 2009 Commencement was a bit of a political circus, and I think I’m conscious that that day is for graduates and their parents — and I don’t want to make the focus something else. … My concern a little bit is that, should the new president come, it may be even more of a circus.”

Jenkins errs in primarily concerning himself with the “circus” more than offering his graduates and their parents a day with the leader of the free world and our nation’s president — regardless of human and policy shortcomings perceived or evident by specific campaign promises such as deporting current students brought illegally as children into the United States. Jenkins must consider that every president has a buffet of policies Americans must evaluate as an entire political meal.

Too often prior to Pope Francis, the American Catholic hierarchy completely and rigidly rejected a president based on one litmus test — abortion rights, but not necessarily its sister issues of preventing war deaths or striving to restrict capital punishment deaths. American bishops are notorious for prioritizing abortion while bypassing beneficial proposals to increase living wages, better clean air and water, improve healthcare or expand family leave.

Notre Dame enjoys a unique stature as the leading nonmilitary educational institution that hosted the most sitting presidents as commencement speakers: Dwight Eisenhower (1960), Jimmy Carter (1977), Ronald Reagan (1981), George H. W. Bush (1992), George W. Bush (2001) and Barack Obama (2009). Notably absent is Bill Clinton (1993-2001), whose abortion rights support “excommunicated” him by the Catholic hierarchy. Yet despite a history of factoring the artificial Catholic hierarchical restrictions before extending such invitations, twice as many presidents accepted Notre Dame commencement requests than the nearest other university with three presidential addresses.

In 2009, many kooky conservative Catholics did not view Obama’s invitation and accompanying honorary degree as welcoming the nation’s first African-American president, but as support for his abortion rights stand. Activists embarrassed all Catholics through their outlandishly rigid, zealous, vitriolic clownish so-called anti-abortion stunts. Notably, Alan Keyes, conservative Catholic third-degree Knight of Columbus who ran against Obama in 2008 as the America’s Independent Party nominee, led some of the antics. Had Pope Francis been at the Vatican during the time, we may have seen less livid unyielding rhetorical bluster and intolerant lock-stepping church indignation as personified by the likes of New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan.

With the ascendancy of Pope Francis, the Church has begun to heal, embrace and judge less while ministering to all Catholics. In his September 2013 America Magazine interview, Francis focused less on doctrine and dogma and more on attitude from within when ministering. He warns, “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.”

While Francis reigns, Catholics of differing opinions should be more respectful in their dissent against Trump policies, not his visit to Notre Dame. Remember Francis’ famous airplane answer to a question about a homosexual person of good will and in search of God, “I am no one to judge. Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.”

Like it or not, Donald Trump is our president. It is misguided to proclaim, “Not my president,” unless you renounce your citizenship or your state secedes from the Union. The more correct slogan is, “Not my policy.” A Trump commencement protest should contain the internal dignified attitude Pope Francis advocates, with respect for the campus community distinguished by the peaceful approach Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. demonstrated. Protestors should wear a half-inch wide plain blue button as a sign of opposition — peaceful and orderly protest marching in designated areas optional. Graduating students who oppose Trump should merely affix blue painter’s tape in the form of an “X” across the tops of their mortarboard graduation hats to visibly demonstrate the breadth of their opposition in a single photograph from above.

Citing Pope Francis’ inspiration, and continuing his 2009 tradition of not cherry-picking policy stands, Jenkins has no other option but to invite Trump, especially if Trump opposes abortion rights. Few Americans ever see a president, let alone spend an hour with him — whether history judges him the greatest or worst. Jenkins’ call to minister to his educational flock outweighs any circus outside or the carnival barking under the tent.

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

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