Unless you have been living under a rock for the last few weeks, you know that there has been significant debate surrounding Notre Dame’s decision to invite President Obama to speak at graduation. Notre Dame, America’s best known Catholic University, is pro-life and Barack Obama is pro-choice and for stem cell research. Since the graduation this past weekend, there has been even more discussion about Obama’s address and the response it received.
Despite overwhelming pressure from the global Catholic community, Notre Dame did not rescind the offer to speak, proving that we can be accepting of others despite our differences. Despite protesters, threats and anger, Obama accepted the invitation to speak and in doing so proved that regardless of how emotionally charged the topic may be, there is always more that we can learn and always the possibility that we can find common ground.
Obama could have tried to ignore the issue in his speech – he could have recycled graduation phrases like “this is your moment” or “the world is your oyster” or “dream big!”. What would that have achieved? I think all it would have done is wasted an opportunity to discuss the importance of dialogue — particularly about the hard issues — and of being open minded.
Instead, Obama addressed the issue head-on. He acknowledged his personal position and the fact that reconciling it with those that are pro-life may not be possible. However, he also urged people to be “fair-minded” with their words and to presume “good faith” about those on the other side of the debate.
As a child we are taught that actions speak louder than words but I believe that in this case, both were important. Notre Dame’s Administration and Barack Obama showed with action that there is room for both sides of the dialogue and then showed with words that the dialogue can be open-minding and respectful, instead of hateful and angry.
Personally, what I find most interesting about the coverage is types of protests that Obama encountered. I know a lot of people who are pro-choice – not one of them is pro- abortion. Rather, they are for a woman’s right to make the the best choice for her when faced with an incredibly difficult decision. They are for presenting a woman with support and resources and for making her aware of all of her options, including abortion.
The idea that protesters yelled “Baby Killer” or wore yellow crosses and baby’s feet on their mortarboards is very disturbing to me. The coverage of the billboard down the road from Notre Dame that read “Notre Dame: Obama is Pro Abortion Choice. How Dare You Honor Him?” is misleading. Look at the word choice — it assumes that those who are pro-choice ARE pro-abortion or pro-murder which is untrue.
I think that zealots on any side of a debate are scary – whether left or right wing — because common sense is replaced by an unhealthy single mindedness that ignores reason. We can disagree with each other without going to extremes. Making the assumption that all pro-choice people are pro-abortion is like making the assumption that all pro-life people are bombing abortion clinics and killing doctors that perform the procedure – false.
Barack Obama’s speech encouraged dialogue and respect. The United Way trains its organizations to take advantage of “teachable moments” – the large and small things that happen in our everyday life that we can use as lessons. Obama’s appearance at Notre Dame’s graduation and his speech provide us with numerous “teachable moments” – let’s just hope that those on both sides of the issue take advantage of the opportunity to learn from them.