While the trumped-up imbroglio over President Obama's invitation to deliver the commencement address at Notre Dame continues to simmer, the attitudes and voting behavior of American Catholics belie the manufactured controversy. And as it turns out, a 2003 book of the school's commencement speeches issued by the University of Notre Dame Press shows the political diversity of its past speakers. Among the headliners is 1995 honoree and 1975 South Bend graduate, the pro-choice Condoleezza Rice.
Sadly for the likes of Bush speechwriter turned Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, far from "declaring war on Catholics," Barack Obama enjoys their support. Obama, after all, not only won among Catholic voters by a comfortable 9-point margin, he easily defeated John McCain in St. Joseph County, home to the Indiana university, as well as sweeping an October straw poll among Notre Dame students. And as a recent Gallup survey showed, Catholic attitudes towards abortion, stem cell research, homosexuality, out-of-wedlock parenthood and a host of other social issues differ little from the American electorate that put Barack Obama in the White House.
Of course, political popularity and adherence to ideological litmus tests have not been the deciding factors for the nation's elite Catholic universities in choosing commencement speakers. Despite similar protests, Notre Dame's 1992 graduation ceremonies featured the pro-choice New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. And in 1995, the school offered its commencement podium to Notre Dame alumnus and university trustee, Condi Rice.
And to be sure, the "mildly pro-choice" views of Ms. Rice would not be in keeping with the Church's teachings on abortion. As she later told the Washington Times in 2005:
Miss Rice said abortion should be "as rare a circumstance as possible," although without excessive government intervention. "We should not have the federal government in a position where it is forcing its views on one side or the other.
(Apparently, Rice's 1995 speech produced no firestorm akin to that which preceded the Iraq war cheerleader's 2006 commencement appearance and honorary degree at the Jesuit-run Boston College.)
For its part, the leadership at Notre Dame seems to believe that exposing students to the political leadership of their nation, regardless of those leaders' views, fits within the mission of the country's premier Catholic universities. Reflecting that commitment, the University of Notre Dame Press in 2003 published Go Forth and Do Good: Memorable Notre Dame Commencement Addresses by Rev. Wilson D. Miscamble, C.S.C., professor of history at the University of Notre Dame and rector and superior of Moreau Seminary.
With a foreword by Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., who delivered the 1987 commencement, the book includes 24 notable graduation speeches from presidents of both parties as well as a litany of figures who no doubt found themselves on opposite sides of the abortion issue:
Among other featured Commencement speakers are: Joseph Kennedy, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Andrew Young, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, Condoleezza Rice, Kofi Annan, and Presidents Eisenhower, Carter and Reagan.
Regarding the invitation to President Obama for its May graduation ceremony, the school's president Reverend John I. Jenkins acknowledged, "Of course, this does not mean we support all of his positions" and called the event "a basis for further positive engagement."
As for Condoleezza Rice, she would doubtless agree. After all, her 1995 speech to Notre Dame graduates was titled, "The Role of the Education Person."