Four Commencements and a Video

Four Commencements and a Video March 28, 2009

So people keep writing me asking what I think about the whole Obama commencement thing. I’m flattered. My opinion, in brief, is that I think Notre Dame’s having him was a mistake, basically for the reasons Rick has laid out here, but I think that the reaction to the invite has been over the top and out of proportion to the issue involved. The sheer passion on both sides of the debate suggests, to me at least, that the controversy is really a proxy for some deeper political disagreements among Catholics. And as Forrest Gump was wont to say, that’s all I have to say about that.

Anyway, the whole matter got me reminiscing about the various commencements I’ve attended over the years.

Leaving aside minor events, the first commencement I attended was my graduation from college. Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg was the chosen speaker, and chose to make the focus of his remarks the need for additional research funding for his department, and the advisability of the state adopting an income tax in order to make that happen. The speech also contained the line “When you tell people you went to Texas, no one will care how the football team is doing . . . at least not if they are an adult.” This got a sizable boo from the audience.

My second commencement was at my brother’s graduation. The speaker was Michael Dell, notable for having dropped out of the very school he was now addressing. His speech was about Michael Dell, and how great he was.

Commencement number three was at my brother’s graduation from law school (I missed my own law school commencement, but that’s another story). After the opening prayer (which contained a number of anti-Bush statements), the announcer got up and said that so and so would now sing the national Anthem. My father, loud enough so that several rows could hear him, then said “I hope she can make it through the song without making a political statement.” The commencement itself was basically a lecture on international law (I don’t remember the speaker’s name, but he was some expert in the field).

Last, but not least, was a friend’s commencement a few years back at Catholic University of America. Tony Snow gave the address. The speech was mainly about his work for the Bush administration and Foxnews and his struggles with cancer, though he did at least make an effort to tie his anecdotes to pieces of advice for the new graduates.

In other words, of the four commencements I’ve attended, only one had anything to do with the ostensible purpose of a commencement speech. I suspect that Obama’s speech will be no different in this regard. President Bush used his Notre Dame commencement address to give a speech on his faith-based charities program (remember that?), and I expect that President Obama will likewise use the opportunity to deliver some sort of major policy address (given that President Obama is not a stupid man, I assume that the subject of the address will not be abortion or stem cells). For my money, though, the best commencement remarks I’ve heard were not actually delivered at a commencement, but are contained in the Baz Luhrmann song Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen):

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  • JC

    Why does everything have to be political?
    Why not theological?
    Notre Dame is, among other things, the university that employs Richard McBrien.
    It has twice publicly proclaimed–at the Land of Lakes Conference in the 1960s and again in an open letter to the USCCB ten years ago regarding _Ex Corde Ecclesiae_ –that it puts “academic freedom” above theological orthodoxy.

    A quarter century ago, Bishop Sheen advised Catholics not to send their kids to Catholic colleges. And when the best that America can muster, besides the outright heresy at Notre Dame and Boston College, is the Charismatics at Steubenville or the Young Republicans at Christendom, Sheen’s statements seem to apply just as much now as then.

  • Well, I am seriously considering sending my son to Thomas Aquinas College in Cali. It’s appears to be a fantastic school, both from an academic and theological standpoint.

  • It has twice publicly proclaimed–at the Land of Lakes Conference in the 1960s and again in an open letter to the USCCB ten years ago regarding _Ex Corde Ecclesiae_ –that it puts “academic freedom” above theological orthodoxy.

    What was the context of those proclamations, JC?

  • Ronald King

    The real scandal in this is not that Obama was invited to Notre Dame but the outrage expressed on EWTN and other Catholic radio networks. I hear fear and the resulting self-righteous anger that is so typical of a materialistic and narcisistic spirituality. We should be happy that Obama is coming to the school that honors Mary. We should be thanking God for this opportunity to exhibit the love and peace that our Catholic faith proclaims.
    Sadly, we are exhibiting a rigidity that is only antagonistic and defensive while proclaiming that we should put on the armor of Christ. This outrage exhibits an us against them mentality and reveals a conformity to the problem-solving methods of the world.
    Wasn’t Christ on the Cross considered a scandal and wasn’t Mary standing there silently? Those who are outraged seem to forget who is stronger in this struggle. I am ashamed of those who dominate the airwaves and proclaim our faith to the world. They are masters of the obvious. They are still believing that reality is Newtonian physics and they can only measure what they can see. Our faith is resides in the realm of quantum physics.

  • Spirit of Vatican II

    If I were Obama I would take an extra posse of bodyguards to ND — those Catholic crazies are just as dangerous as Muslim ones.

  • Kurt

    Fortunately, loud as they are, the anti-Obama crazies are really a marginal element among the students, faculty and guests of Notre Dame, as well as the faithful nationwide and world-wide. But yes, be careful, as it only takes one, encouraged on by the overheated rhetoric the crazies employ. Pray for the President’s safety.

  • I wonder if the incoming archbishop of New York now counts as an “anti-Obama crazy” to Kurt and his cohorts. I ask because before Archbishop Dolan declared ND in the wrong about commencement, the pro-Obama crazies were praising his broadmindness for inviting the President to his upcoming installation. When it comes to judging their fellow Catholics, their only criterion appears to be loyalty to the Obamessiah.

  • Spirit of Vatican II

    Yes, “it only takes one”. I recall a conversation with James Joyce;

    “Mr Joyce, do you ever think of returning to Dublin?”

    “Never, I’d be shot in the street.’

    “Good God! Who would do that? Only a madman.”


  • Spirit of Vatican II

    I think there is a qualitative difference between Bush-haters and Obama-haters. Bush-haters did not send death threats.

  • Kurt


    Speak to Spirit about crazies, its his term.

    As for those opposing the President’s visit to ND, how every many bishops it includes, I think it is clearly on the low side of 20% of the Catholic faithful. Those who continue to speak out on it, however sincere they may be, simply aid in their continued social marginalization.

    I know for some the response is “Numbers don’t matter. What matters is that we are right.”

    That is their weakness. Stand up for the principle that the act of abortion is wrong without regard to popular opinion. But their inability to deal with the reality that some respect should be given for the consensus of the faithful as to the meaning of a symbolic act puts them at diservice to the Church and the efforts to defend human life.

    Again, please pray for the President’s safety.

  • I think there is a qualitative difference between Bush-haters and Obama-haters. Bush-haters did not send death threats.

    How do you know that?

    My understanding is that during all administrations the secret service deals with death threats pretty routinely.

    And I know that driving around Austin (the tiny blue spot in Texas) over the last five years I’ve definitely seen a number of “Kill the President” bumper stickers.

  • Franklin Jennings

    Certainly, Ronald, when you say “we” you don’t mean “we” for one moment.

    Then again, if one is so willing to diagnose the spiritual illnesses of others, what’s a little rhetorical untruth?

    Of course, Kurt’s “don’t bow to numbers, bow to numbers” post was hilarious as long as you don’t induce anuerism trying to find a meaning.

  • Ronald King

    I am for the conversion of President Obama not for his rejection. Those who oppose him speaking at the commencement seem to have the loudest voice. They are on Catholic radio all day and wrongly influence others to react from the us against them mentality of the amygdala, which is purely human response to a perceived threat or insult. There is no insult here to our faith. There is only an opportunity for conversion.
    Mary’s silence at the Cross says everything.

  • awakaman

    Mr. King:

    Mary’s silence at the cross denoted acquiescence to a necessary sacrifice. Are you saying the victims of abortion are a necessary sacrifice? If so, for what?

  • Ronald King

    How do you know what Mary’s silence means. Your second statement is what you believe based on your not understanding what I am saying. If you have a Magnificat handy pull out the meditation for 3-30-2009 and see what you think.
    I returned to our beautiful faith Easter of ’05 only through the influence of God’s Love. I returned right in the middle of the revelation of the evil of sexual molestation being carried out by predators who pretended to be priests and the revelation of a systematic cover-up. Abortion is intrinsically evil and it is the result of other evils that precede it. It does not exist in a vacuum.
    Lack of love causes abortion. We are called to a deeper understanding of God’s Love in our faith and I am not going to settle for anything that is not love being expressed to a world that does not understand our faith.
    I understand your position. You obviously do not know what I am saying. Consequently, you state I am wrong because of you lack of understanding and then you accuse me of something that is absolutely pathological.
    Unbelieveable and beyond disappointing

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