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Welcoming Joe Biden with open arms

| Thursday, April 29, 2021

Ask any student at Notre Dame who their favorite Catholic President of all time is, and most will reply “Josiah Bartlett.” Many students wear “Bartlett for America” t-shirts and during campaign seasons it is not uncommon to see posters across campus supporting the fictional TV President. But it is time to recognize that a new Catholic has entered the Oval Office, and this one is very real. All throughout his political career, Joe Biden has touted his Catholic heritage at the foundation of his beliefs, he attends mass every week and boasts a picture of him and Pope Francis in the Oval Office. But, it seems that throughout the chaos of the 2020 election, Joe Biden’s Catholicism was lost among the American people and the Notre Dame community. However, as we draw ever closer towards graduation and commencement, it is time to wake up the echoes of Notre Dame’s tradition of inviting the newly elected President to speak at graduation.

Even as I write this, I can already hear the retort coming from the Christian right on campus and throughout the country, “How could Notre Dame possibly allow someone to speak at their graduation who is openly pro-choice?” In fact, groups are already forming to dissuade Father Jenkins from inviting the sitting president. These groups cite Biden’s belief that the government should not have control of a woman’s body and that people have a fundamental freedom to marry who they please, as their primary concerns.

To me, this is a truly bizarre argument. If our litmus test for commencement speakers rests on their religious accordance to the Catholic Church, I have some bad news for those who celebrated the arrival of then-Vice President Mike Pence just four years ago. The crazy evangelical man whose faith was founded in opposition to the Catholic Church is fine, but God forbid the Roman Catholic President who doesn’t agree with the exact same church doctrines that some do becomes the commencement speaker. It is clear that for many, the measure of a pious Catholic isn’t their good works, devotion to the Lord, or pronouncements of their faith — it is their stance on abortion. While this conclusion is incredibly disturbing, it does explain why Donald Trump (who many on the Catholic right would have supported being the commencement speaker in 2016) was so warmly welcomed by the conservative party within the Church. I somehow doubt it was his three divorces, disparaging comments about women, insistence on prioritizing golf over church on Sundays or complete inability to recite a single biblical verse. Seriously, for those who haven’t watched that interview, I’ve linked it here. Trump sounds like me trying to answer a question from a professor when I very obviously didn’t do the reading the night before.

In the purely doctrinal sense of the views of Notre Dame, is Joe Biden the perfect Catholic? No. But nobody is. Before everyone goes running around pointing out Biden’s few inconsistencies with the Church, I would kindly refer them to John 8:7, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone.” Beyond the religious argument, Notre Dame has a storied history of inviting — often newly elected — Presidents to give the commencement speech for that year’s graduating class. These Presidents have come from all sides of the political spectrum including Eisenhower, Reagan, Carter, both Bushes and Obama. Other Presidents such as FDR and JFK (previously the only Catholic President) have received honorary degrees from Notre Dame as well. The absence of Trump in 2016 says far more about Trump himself than Notre Dame’s unwillingness to associate with current presidents. Inviting Biden is not an endorsement of all his beliefs, it is a tradition at Notre Dame and has the potential to increase productive dialogue on important issues.

Yes, Joe Biden supports pro-choice policies. He also supports Dreamers, humane treatment of immigrants, expanding access to healthcare, increased aid to the poor and abolishing the death penalty. In each of these fields Biden aligns far more closely to Catholic social teaching than his conservative critics. Abortion cannot be the end all be all. If I recall, the two most important commandments in the Bible are described in Matthew 22:37-40, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Abortion is not the litmus test to piety. Joe Biden is a devout Roman Catholic who openly professes his faith and desire to do good work. He’s also the President of the United States. If he isn’t qualified to speak at Notre Dame’s commencement, I’m not sure who is.

Clark Bowden is a senior political science major. When he’s not sleeping through his alarm or reminding people that he studied abroad, he can be found in heated political debates or watching the Washington Nationals play baseball. He can be reached at [email protected] or @BowdenClark on Twitter.

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

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