Prof uses teachable moment

President Barack Obama arrives at Notre Dame on Sunday already triumphant, the champion of the pro-abortion rights lobby ready to be honored by America’s pre-eminent Roman Catholic university.

This controversy has been spun as Catholics opposing a president offering a commencement address at Notre Dame. That’s not really the issue. What most are angry about is that a great Catholic university is conferring an honorary degree upon a politician whose position on abortion is in absolute conflict with Catholic teaching.

Given how this has been spun, by an adoring pro-Obama (and pro-abortion rights) media, the weekend’s news coverage is tiresomely predictable:

Christian protesters whose faith teaches them to oppose abortion will be depicted as intolerant extremist fanatics, perhaps just one step removed from the Appalachian snake dancers.

Obama will charm them and talk about furthering “dialogue,” and he’ll win rave reviews for courage. Most analysis will likely include the phrase “highly nuanced” to praise Obama’s verbal dexterity. It took some time, but “nuance” finally surpassed “gravitas” in the lexicon of journalists hellbent on conferring virtues upon politicians who haven’t earned them.

What’s also evident is that with buzzwords like “diversity” and “nuance” flying around, the one person who has spoken most clearly in all of this has become a footnote: Mary Ann Glendon, a law professor at Harvard University and a former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.

Perhaps Glendon has become a media footnote because what she said wasn’t nuanced enough for the scribes. Yet rather than dance nimbly, the 70-year-old Glendon did something the best Catholic teachers do.

She stood firm. And she engaged in absolute clarity.

Glendon was to have received the Laetare Medal, described by Notre Dame as the most prestigious honor awarded to American Catholics. But in a completely non-nuanced open letter to Notre Dame President the Rev. John Jenkins, Glendon turned it down.

In her letter, Glendon said that she did not oppose Obama speaking to the graduates. What bothered her was Notre Dame conferring an honorary degree on a president who supports abortion rights.

She noted that such an award would be in direct violation of a 2004 statement by U.S. Catholic bishops declaring that Catholic institutions “should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles” and that such persons “should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.”

“That request,” wrote Glendon to the Rev. Jenkins, “which in no way seeks to control or interfere with an institution’s freedom to invite and engage in serious debate with whomever it wishes, seems so reasonable that I am at a loss to understand why a Catholic university should disrespect it.”

So she turned down the university. Notre Dame scrambled to find someone else to accept the Laetare Medal, but there were no takers. That’s understandable. Accepting this year’s award after it was rejected by a Catholic upholding church teachings would be more than even nuance could bear.

What also bothered Glendon is that Notre Dame suggested her acceptance of the award would balance the Obama equation.

“A commencement, however,” she wrote to Jenkins, “is supposed to be a joyous day for the graduates and their families. It is not the right place, nor is a brief acceptance speech the right vehicle, for engagement with the very serious problems raised by Notre Dame’s decision — in disregard of the settled position of the U.S. bishops — to honor a prominent and uncompromising opponent of the Church’s position on issues involving fundamental principles of justice.”

Glendon’s letter was largely ignored in the media, particularly the Chicago media, which exhausted itself by mocking and ridiculing Cardinal Francis George for daring to stand up for his faith.

George suggested that it was “an extreme embarrassment” for a Catholic university to confer honors upon a pro-abortion-rights president. For this grievous sin against Obama, mayoral brother Billy Daley attacked the cardinal in a Tribune op-ed piece, calling the cardinal’s stance “an embarrassment to Chicago Catholics.”

And so, during Lent, we were treated to a Daley instructing the cardinal about what belongs to Caesar.

All that loud political anger was aimed at a priest who stood for his faith, as he prepared for Easter. Though I’m not Roman Catholic, I was hurt and personally sickened by the attacks against Cardinal George.

Glendon did not shout or mock or ridicule. Instead, she wrote a letter and turned down an honor.

By doing so, she offered a teachable moment about what remains rock solid in a faith that has lasted for 2,000 years.

— John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His e-mail address is