Last week, President Obama was awarded an honorary degree at the commencement ceremonies at the University of Notre Dame. There has been much controversy surrounding this event due to Mr. Obama’s political stance on abortion, which is in direct opposition to Catholic Church doctrine. Protests & boycotts were organized and Ms. Mary Ann Glendon, the former ambassador to the Vatican (who had been awarded the prestigious Laetare Medal) declined the award rather than appear on the same stage with Mr. Obama.
In his speech, the President asked the following question: “As citizens of a vibrant and varied democracy, how do we engage in vigorous debate?” (the text and video of Mr. Obama’s speech may be found here). Through these protests and boycotts the debate is being carried on.
I was bothered by the university’s choice of commencement speaker but at the same time I applauded them for their choice. By their action, Notre Dame has embraced the idea that universities are sanctuaries where ideas (no matter how controversial they may be) can be presented, discussed and debated. Too often in the recent past, it seemed that colleges and universities were steering the ‘safer’ course where controversy or discussion was avoided and guest speakers were only invited if they espoused ‘vanilla’ views or views that were in line with those of their board of trustees or benefactors. History has taught me that one important sign to look for in the decline of democracy and the rise of totalitarianism is the muzzling of free expression, especially in the universities. Witness the case of Fidel Castro: free expression was very important when he was a student, but once he came into power the universities were silenced.
Returning to Mr. Obama’s address: Through protests, demonstrations and boycotts, the firmness of the anti-abortion position is presented to our leaders. Strong, vocal displays of disapproval with government’s abortion policy are important in calling attention to the president and our representatives that we will not go away quietly. I firmly support Mr. Obama’s efforts to remedy the social conditions which may influence a woman to seek an abortion. Catholic social doctrine demands that we become ‘our brother’s keeper’; we must help our sisters who are facing serious emotional, societal and financial burdens associated with giving birth.
Ideally, the implementation of the president’s initiatives and policies will reduce the abortion rate to zero. Unfortunately, if it is reduced to only one (instead of zero), the only choice that that one unborn child has is to not exist. That child will never have the opportunity to give or receive love and the entire world would be much poorer for it.
So the debate must continue; it must be vocal and it must be visible. It must be respectful of those who do not share our views but our position must be unwavering. While there may be aspects of this issue where compromise is possible, the central issue is life, not choice, and where life is involved, there can be no compromise.