Introduction of President Barack Obama
Prepared remarks by Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C.
University of Notre Dame
May 17, 2009
President Obama, Fr. Hesburgh, Judge Noonan, Members of the Board of Trustees, Members of the faculty, staff, alumni, friends, parents, and most of all – the Notre Dame Class of 2009:
Several autumns ago, you came to Notre Dame from home …. now Notre Dame has become home. And it always will be. For home is not where you live. Home is where you belong. You will always belong – and I pray you will always feel you belong – here at Notre Dame.
You are … ND.
In my four years as President of your University – I have found that even among those who did not go to Notre Dame, even among those who do not share the Catholic faith, there is a special expectation, a special hope, for what Notre Dame can accomplish in the world. They hope that Notre Dame will be one of the great universities in the nation, but they also hope that it will send forth graduates who — grounded in deep moral values — can help solve the world’s toughest problems.
Their hope is in you, the graduates of 2009.
That is a good place for hope to be. I have great confidence in what your talent and energy can accomplish in the world. But I have a special optimism for what you can do inspired by faith.
It is your faith that will focus your talents and help you build the world you long to live in and leave to your children.
The world you enter today is torn by division – and is fixed on its differences.
Differences must be acknowledged, and in some cases cherished. But too often differences lead to pride in self and contempt for others, until two sides – taking opposing views of the same difference — demonize each other. Whether the difference is political, religious, racial, or national — trust falls, anger rises, and cooperation ends … even for the sake of causes all sides care about.
More than any problem in the arts or sciences – engineering or medicine – easing the hateful divisions between human beings is the supreme challenge of this age. If we can solve this problem, we have a chance to come together and solve all the others.
A Catholic University – and its graduates – are specially called, and I believe specially equipped, to help meet this challenge.
As a Catholic University, we are part of the Church – members of the “mystical body of Christ” animated by our faith in the Gospel. Yet we are also – most of us – citizens of the United States – this extraordinary evolving expression of human freedom. We are called to serve each community of which we’re a part, and this call is captured in the motto over the door of the east nave of the Basilica: “God, Country, Notre Dame.”
As we serve the Church, we can persuade believers by appeals to both faith and reason. As we serve our country, we will be motivated by faith, but we cannot appeal only to faith. We must also engage in a dialogue that appeals to reason that all can accept.
When we face differences with fellow citizens, we will be tested: do we keep trying, with love and a generous spirit, to appeal to ethical principles that might be persuasive to others – or do we condemn those who differ with us for not seeing the truth that we see?
The first approach can lead to healing, the second to hostility. We know which approach we are called to as disciples of Christ.
Pope Benedict said last year from the South Lawn of the White House: “I am confident that the American people will find in their religious beliefs a precious source of insight and an inspiration to pursue reasoned, responsible and respectful dialogue in the effort to build a more humane and free society.”
Genuine faith does not inhibit the use of reason; it purifies it of pride and distorting self-interest. As it does so, Pope Benedict has said, “human reason is emboldened to pursue its noble purpose of serving mankind, giving expression to our deepest common aspirations and extending … public debate.”
Tapping the full potential of human reason to seek God and serve humanity is a central mission of the Catholic Church. The natural place for the Church to pursue this mission is at a Catholic university. The University of Notre Dame belongs to an academic tradition of nearly a thousand years – born of the Church’s teaching that human reason, tempered by faith, is a gift of God, a path to religious truth, and a means for seeking the common good in secular life.
It is out of this duty to serve the common good that we seek to foster dialogue with all people of good will, regardless of faith, background or perspective. We will listen to all views, and always bear witness for what we believe. Insofar as we play this role, we can be what Pope John Paul II said a Catholic university is meant to be – “a primary and privileged place for a fruitful dialogue between the Gospel and culture” [Ex corde ecclesiae, 3.34].
Of course, dialogue is never instantaneous; it doesn’t begin and end in an afternoon. It is an ongoing process made possible by many acts of courtesy and gestures of respect, by listening carefully and speaking honestly. Paradoxically, support for these actions often falls as the need for them rises – so they are most controversial precisely when they can be most helpful.
As we all know, a great deal of attention has surrounded President Obama’s visit to Notre Dame. We honor all people of good will who have come to this discussion respectfully and out of deeply held conviction.
Most of the debate has centered on Notre Dame’s decision to invite and honor the President. Less attention has been focused on the President’s decision to accept.
President Obama has come to Notre Dame, though he knows well that we are fully supportive of Church teaching on the sanctity of human life, and we oppose his policies on abortion and embryonic stem cell research.
Others might have avoided this venue for that reason. But President Obama is not someone who stops talking to those who differ with him.
Mr. President: This is a principle we share.
As the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council wrote in their pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes: “Respect and love ought to be extended also to those who think or act differently than we do in social, political and even religious matters. In fact, the more deeply we come to understand their ways of thinking through such courtesy and love, the more easily will we be able to enter into dialogue with them.”
If we want to extend courtesy, respect and love – and enter into dialogue – then surely we can start by acknowledging what is honorable in others.
We welcome President Obama to Notre Dame, and we honor him for the qualities and accomplishments the American people admired in him when they elected him. He is a man who grew up without a father, whose family was fed for a time with the help of food stamps — yet who mastered the most rigorous academic challenges, who turned his back on wealth to serve the poor, who sought the Presidency at a young age against long odds, and who – on the threshold of his goal — left the campaign to go to the bedside of his dying grandmother who helped raise him.
He is a leader who has great respect for the role of faith and religious institutions in public life. He has said: “Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square.”
He is the first African American to be elected President, yet his appeal powerfully transcends race. In a country that has been deeply wounded by racial hatred – he has been a healer.
He has set ambitious goals across a sweeping agenda — extending health care coverage to millions who don’t have it, improving education especially for those who most need it, promoting renewable energy for the sake of our economy, our security, and our climate.
He has declared the goal of a world without nuclear weapons and has begun arms reduction talks with the Russians.
He has pledged to accelerate America’s fight against poverty, to reform immigration to make it more humane, and to advance America’s merciful work in fighting disease in the poorest places on earth.
As commander-in-chief and as chief executive, he embraces with confidence both the burdens of leadership and the hopes of his country.
Ladies and Gentlemen: The President of the United States.