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Notre Dame ou Notre President?

Natalia J. Garland

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It is that time of year again: when graduation ceremonies and commencement speeches blossom in America's schools. It is a once-in-a-lifetime occasion for graduates. The ceremonies finalize years of study and achievement as the diplomas are handed over. Graduates hope for a commencement speaker who will validate and inspire them, and not bore them with trite advice and bad jokes. Perhaps this desire for an especially memorable day was what prompted many students at the University of Notre Dame to listen to a commencement speech delivered by President Obama.

Obama accepted two invitations to speak to the college graduates of 2009: one from Arizona State University and the other from the University of Notre Dame. Arizona State has a large Hispanic student body, and Notre Dame (which means Our Lady in French) is a Roman Catholic institution. Notre Dame also gave Obama an honorary degree, and this became a source of controversy.

Why would Obama speak at a Catholic university and address the topic of abortion--especially since he is pro-choice and made the funding of abortions one of his priorities after his presidential inauguration? Why would a Catholic university bestow a prestigious degree on a pro-choice president--especially since respect for life, both born and unborn, is fundamental to Catholic values? The purpose of this essay is not to argue for or against abortion, but to discuss what could be interpreted as inconsistency or hypocrisy within the University's adherence to its own faith.

Also, it is not the purpose of this essay to discuss freedom of speech or the need for academic discourse. Today's focus will be more on the areas of faith and personality, and the decisions revolving around adherence to religious values and simultaneous attraction to famous personalities. In other words, did the University's faculty and students make a choice between Our Lady and President Obama? That is to say, a choice regarding whether to honor one or the other? Is it possible, within Catholic values, to officially honor Obama without dishonoring Our Lady?

Was it an act of sheer insolence when Obama, who has shown strong support of abortion, spoke to Catholics about abortion and on the grounds of a Catholic university so obviously contained within the embrace of Our Lady? What would prompt a man, a leader, to do so? Perhaps we could learn from the psychoanalyst, Erich Fromm (1900-1980), who offered some psycho-political insight in his writings about other political eras. He wrote the following in 1973.

Among political leaders a high degree of narcissism is very frequent; it may be considered an occupational illness--or asset--especially among those who owe their power to their influence over mass audiences. If the leader is convinced of his extraordinary gifts and of his mission, it will be easier to convince the large audiences who are attracted by men who appear to be so absolutely certain. But the narcissistic leader does not use his narcissistic charisma only as a means for political success; he needs success and applause for the sake of his own mental equilibrium. The idea of his greatness and infalibility is essentially based on his narcissistic grandiosity, not on his real achievements as a human being. And yet he cannot do without the narcissistic inflation because his human core--conviction, conscience, love, and faith--is not very developed. Extremely narcissistic persons are often almost forced to become famous, since otherwise they might become depressed and insane. But it takes much talent--and appropriate opportunities--to influence others to such a degree that their applause validates these narcissistic dreams. Even when such people succeed, they are driven to seek further success, since for them failure carries the danger of collapse. Popular success is, as it were, their self-therapy against depression and madness. In fighting for their aims, they are really fighting for their sanity.
[End of quote.]

Would the situation have been different if the University had invited some other pro-abortion speaker? For example, what if they had invited former Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani? Do Fromm's words describe Giuliani (or Obama)? There seem to be significant contrasts between Obama and Giuliani. The former has no outstanding accomplishments: he got his education, worked, and got elected to public offices. The latter, however, has a proven record of accomplishment: as mayor, he reformed New York City and he managed that city (practically, financially, emotionally), when a portion of it was attacked and demolished by terrorists and approximately 3,000 people were killed.

Giulaini was also pro-abortion and he was a blatant adulterer (he was divorced and then married to his girlfriend before running for president). He was an imperfect man. Nonetheless, he did not seem to exhibit the level of narcissism as described by Fromm. Giuliani lost the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, and this was probably partly due to his pro-abortion views and to the way in which he conducted his personal life.

If Giulani had been honored at Notre Dame, a negative reaction to his views and a questioning of the University's judgment would have also been understandable and in order. It is not that perfection is expected of Obama, or total agreement with all of his policies all of the time. The controversy rests in what appeared to be Obama's temerity to share his irreverent views (irreverent according to Catholic values) before Our Lady, the inappropriate leniency toward him by the University faculty, and the submissive acceptance (in the name of academic discourse) of this situation by the majority of students and their parents.

It was a matter of living according to one's faith. What is the Catholic teaching? How should a Catholic react? How does one witness for the Roman Catholic Church when a fundamental teaching--respect for life--is challenged? Should Catholic students have sacrificed the graduation ceremony? Should greater numbers of students have opted to attend the alternate ceremony which was organized by a handful of boycotting students?

Perhaps the majority just wanted to enjoy a much-deserved graduation ceremony with their friends and family. Some parents probably worked hard to save enough money to send their child to Notre Dame. It may have seemed unfair to have this once-in-a-lifetime day taken away from them. Why did the University put these students and parents in this unnecessary and conflicted situation?

There is another possible underlying dynamic among faculty, students, and parents: they voted for Obama. They were not single-issue voters. Perhaps, despite their disagreement with Obama's views on abortion, they felt he was the most qualified presidential candidate and so they voted for him. The abortion issue was something which they were willing to let rest on their conscience (as was probably also true of some Giuliani supporters).

Digging deeper into possible dynamics, some faculty and students might have secretly objected to the Catholic teachings on abortion. So, they rationalized the honoring of Obama by defending the high ground of academic discourse. Any serious Catholic would likely have been stunned and scandalized by Notre Dame's decision to honor Obama. However, even after four years of immersion in a religious institution, many Notre Dame students apparently were not appalled by the faculty's decision.

Let us turn again to Erich Fromm, this time in an attempt to understand a type of group behavior.

Those whose narcissism refers to their group rather than to themselves as individuals are as sensitive as the individual narcissist, and they react with rage to any wound, real or imaginary, inflicted upon their group. If anything, they react more intensely and certainly more consciously. An individual, unless he is mentally sick, may have at least some doubts about his personal narcissistic image. The member of the group has none, since his narcissism is shared by the majority. In case of conflict between groups that challenge each other's collective narcissism, this very challenge arouses intense hostility in each of them. The narcissistic image of one's own group is raised to its highest point, while the devaluation of the opposing group sinks to the lowest. One's own group becomes a defender of human dignity, decency, morality, and right. Devilish qualities are ascribed to the other group; it is treacherous, ruthless, cruel, and basically inhuman. The violation of one of the symbols of group narcissism--such as the flag, or the person of the emperor, the president, or an ambassador--is reacted to with such intense fury and aggression by the people that they are even willing to support their leaders in war.
[End of quote.]

Fromm's words are applicable to extreme situations and personality characteristics. However, with some tweaking, the above passage could also be adapted to other collective units: perhaps a graduating class. Approval of Obama was shared by the majority. The highest point was so-called academic discourse (or participation in a graduation ceremony associated with a famous person). The symbol was the University (prestigious rather than religious) as the place and sponsor of such discourse. This highest point and this symbol were regarded as more important than, or somehow compatible with, Catholic teachings and the symbol of Our Lady (a saint, a figure of holiness and obedience).

Assuming that the Notre Dame faculty and the students' parents were more mature than the students, why was there not more objection or guidance from the older generation? The faculty was entrusted, and the University was paid tuition monies, to teach and to prepare the students for a successful and meaningful life. Was there not enough satisfaction in this task? Were the faculty and parents looking for a peculiar interconnection with Obama? In conclusion, let us borrow some final words from Fromm about a type of interconnection.

Most persons are not aware of their own narcissism, but only of those of its manifestations which do not overtly reveal it. Thus, for instance, they will feel an inordinate admiration for their parents or for their children, and they have no difficulty in expressing these feelings because such behavior is usually judged positively as filial piety, parental affection, or loyalty; but if they were to express their feelings about their own person, such as "I am the most wonderful person in the world," "I am better than anyone else," etc., they would be suspected not only of being extraordinarily vain, but perhaps even of not being quite sane. On the other hand, if a person has achieved something that finds recognition in the field of art, science, sports, business, or politics, his narcissistic attitude appears not only to be realistic and rational, but is also constantly fed by the admiration of others. In these cases he can give full rein to his narcissism because it has been socially sanctioned and confirmed. In present-day Western society there is a peculiar interconnection between the narcissism of the celebrity and the needs of the public. The latter wants to be in touch with famous people because the life of the average person is empty and boring. The mass media live from selling fame, and thus everybody is satisfied: the narcissistic performer, the public, and the fame merchants.
[End of quote.]

If the majority was attracted to a peculiar interconnection, then it must be questioned if the majority failed at the opportunity to strengthen Catholicism in America and to defend the pro-life stance--something which cannot be compromised by Catholics. Those who boycotted the official graduation ceremony were given very little news coverage. It must be a matter of concern for the Church if the majority of Notre Dame students culminated their Catholic education in an academic or political interconnection with Obama, rather than in direct witness to their Church. Should this be regarded as a lapse of faith and subject to some sort of intervention? If indeed a lapse of faith was exhibited by the majority, then the Catholic Church should be truly alarmed.

There must have been many other potential speakers from which to choose--some who would have reinforced, through expertise and experience, the graduates' faith as well as their academic achievements. If Notre Dame wanted discourse with a pro-abortion speaker, then perhaps they should have extended an invitation to Rudy Giuliani. After all, he is a Catholic.

[NOTE: None of the comments or quotations in this essay are intended to carry official diagnostic value. It is not the author's intention to denigrate the sincerity, integrity, or motives of the individuals involved in the Notre Dame graduation ceremony. This essay was an attempt to uncover possible decision-making dynamics: for the purpose of understanding an event, from the perspective of Roman Catholic values, and with use of the Erich Fromm quotations for the organization of ideas. This essay is subject to error.] (Written 06/01/09: bibliography available.)

Until we meet again..............stay sane.

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Copyright 2009 Natalia J. Garland