On May 17, 2009 President Barack Obama will ascend the steps of the Joyce Auditorium stage to accept Notre Dame’s highest honor as a doctor of laws, amid deafening applause. And doubtless, it will come after months of intense debate on messy things like academic freedom, the nature and mission of Catholic universities, and what it means to grant the podium to scholars and political figures of diverse views.
But all the months of scrutiny will abate at this awesome culmination, and graduating seniors and their families will savor the moment of seeing the first black president in our nation’s 232-year history address them with his message of hope and unity.
At that moment, I invite every member of the Notre Dame community to gaze northwest and ponder in their hearts what the Lady who glistens atop our Golden Dome is thinking. Here is my humble guess.
She will wonder whom the University is honoring.
She will remember the university’s first days, how she first came to be cloaked in gold above a lake, and how she stood overlooking an awesome experiment dedicated to the pursuit of faith and reason, a place of scholarship and service, of faith and action, of fellowship and intellect— a place chartered to glorify and honor her. She will remember how that awesome journey was wrought with intellectual questioning and diversity of thought and fierce debates, but that all of the intellectual vigor was ordered to the Truth that she literally held in her womb. She will remember how the university grew—how its embrace of academic excellence and faith came into harmony, attracting people of diverse backgrounds and differing thought, but how its love of diversity was subordinated to a love of honoring her.
She will remember that she is literally the Mother of her faithful—she is Notre Dame—and that in her is the embodiment of undying and selfless love. She gave life to the source of life, and to honor her is to honor her Son and life itself.
She will wonder why her university is honoring a man with a philosophy inimical to life. A man who believes the law should protect the right to abortion—a man who, in his first days of office, opened the nation’s coffers to international abortion organizations, who proclaimed that abortion is an issue “on which (he) will not yield.” She will remember the only article this man wrote for the most prestigious law review in the country, which stated that the law has an interest in safeguarding abortion to “prevent increasing numbers of children from being born in to lives of pain and despair.” She will remember, too, that her Son’s own life—the most influential life ever lived—was marked with great pain and agony.
She will remember that her University has given a forum for many scholars and leaders—but she will wonder why we are so honoring this one. She will wonder what part of the president’s philosophy of law and life is praiseworthy. And she will wonder what her university’s stewards consider a doctor of true law.
When President Obama steps down those steps holding the physical proof of her—her!—university’s most esteemed honor, she will remember the words of the school’s founder in 1844: “When this school, Our Lady’s school, grows a bit more, I shall raise her aloft so that, without asking, all men shall know why we have succeeded here. To that lovely Lady, raised high on a dome, a Golden Dome, men may look and find the answer.”
On May 17, 2009, Our Lady of the Lake will wonder in whom they have found that answer.