Obama's Notre Dame Commencement Speech Scored By Trumping the Culture Wars

Obama rises above the culture wars with his outreach to Catholics.

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By Mary Kate Cary, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

I just read the entire transcript of President Obama's speech at the Notre Dame commencement, and I'd recommend, if you haven't already, that you do the same.

It's one of the best he's ever given. If you do nothing else today, read this speech.

Some people were upset that he'd "rob" the graduates of their day in the sun by talking about the narrow topic of abortion. Instead, he spoke directly to them about the possibilities lying ahead of them, and then went from there into a great philosophical and theological discussion of what it means to be a person of faith in today's world. Rather than robbing them, he gave the graduates a great gift.

My fellow Catholic Andrew Sullivan found the speech to be "deeply Christian," and I agree. I'll even go one step further and say it's one of the most Jesuit Catholic speeches I've ever read, because of its emphasis on doubt, original sin, service, the common good, and tolerating faithful, intelligent questioning by people who give each other the benefit of the doubt. He talked about his early years working with Catholic churches in Chicago to serve the poor, and did everything but talk about the long-standing Catholic tradition of what we call "a preferential option for the poor." He even gave a shout-out to Father Ted Hesburgh and Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, both moderates in the church. It's interesting to think about all the people he did not name.

In rising above the "culture-war" type of rhetoric used by his opponents, the president came across as thoughtful, humble, and tolerant. He simply refused to be dragged down into it. Another Catholic, E.J. Dionne, wrote in today's Washington Post:

In raising the stakes entailed in Obama's visit, the critics did the president a great service. By facing their arguments head-on and by demonstrating his attentiveness to Catholic concerns, Obama strengthened moderate and liberal forces inside the church itself. He also struck a forceful blow against those who would keep the nation mired in culture-war politics without end. Obama's opponents on the Catholic right placed a large bet on his Notre Dame visit. And they lost.

Obama talked about being at a crossroads, and this line in particular hit home for me: "Those who speak out against stem cell research may be rooted in an admirable conviction about the sacredness of life, but so are the parents of a child with juvenile diabetes who are convinced that their son's or daughter's hardships can be relieved. (Applause.)" The fact that that line got applause at Notre Dame means a lot to me as the Catholic parent of a child with juvenile diabetes. Maybe there's hope for more understanding on this.

One last thought fromAndrew Sullivan's "Audacity of Humility" blog entry on this:

I believe that these sentiments will resonate with all Catholics of good will and serious purpose. When we are called by God to oppose the evils of abortion or torture or terror, we need to remain civil and fair and attuned to the calm that comes from knowing that we fight the good fight. I have not always succeeded in this. But I do know that if we do not try to do better, in the passionate and righteous pursuit of peace and justice, we will advance neither one nor the other.

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