President Dwight Eisenhower's Civil Rights Commission faced high hurdles as it searched for common ground in the tense years after the U.S. Supreme Court began attacking the walls of segregation inside America's schools. After several years of struggle, Father Theodore Hesburgh discovered a bond between his commission colleagues that transcended race and regional differences, noted President Barack Obama, in his historic commencement address at the University of Notre Dame.
All of them liked to fish. Thus, the president of America's most famous Catholic institution -- he served for 35 years -- arranged for a twilight cruise on the lake at Notre Dame's retreat center at Land O'Lakes, Wis.
"They fished, and they talked, and they changed the course of history," said Obama.
Hesburgh mastered this kind of graceful strategy, as did another hero of Catholic progressives -- the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago. The president challenged the graduates to learn from their examples while supporting "movements for change both large and small."
"Remember that each of us," he said, "endowed with the dignity possessed by all children of God, has the grace to recognize ourselves in one another; to understand that we all seek the same love of family, the same fulfillment of a life well lived. Remember that in the end, in some way we are all fishermen."
Notre Dame's president, Father John Jenkins, then underlined this link to the civil rights era by giving Obama a photograph of Hesburgh clasping hands in solidarity with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Whoever prepared Obama for this triumphant visit did a fine job, noted George Weigel, at National Review Online. The president "hit for the cycle" at Notre Dame, "mentioning 'common ground'; tolerance and reconciliation amid diversity; Father Hesburgh; … problem-solving over ideology; Father Hesburgh; saving God's creation from climate change; pulling together; Father Hesburgh; open hearts, open minds, fair-minded words; Father Hesburgh."
But the speech also offered a provocative statement about Catholic faith and the public square, noted Richard Garrett, a Notre Dame law professor whose areas of research include Catholic social thought and church-state relations.
The president urged the students to have "confidence in the values with which you've been raised. … Be unafraid to speak your mind when those values are at stake." But he also stressed that the "ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt."
"It's beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us or what he asks of us. And those of us who believe must trust that His wisdom is greater than our own," said Obama. This should "humble us. It should temper our passions, cause us to be wary of too much self-righteousness. … Within our vast democracy, this doubt should remind us even as we cling to our faith to persuade through reason, through an appeal whenever we can to universal rather than parochial principles."
It was hard not to connect this pronouncement with the renewed abortion debates that followed Notre Dame's decision to grant Obama an honorary doctor of laws degree. In the end, 80-plus bishops publicly criticized this action, arguing that it violated a 2004 U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops policy that stated: "Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions."
The problem with the Obama's logic, explained Garnett, is that traditional Catholics argue that the sanctity of human life -- from conception to natural death -- is based on universal, rational principles of human rights, dignity and equality, not narrow, uniquely "Catholic" beliefs.
The bottom line: The church defended the same principles in the civil rights era.
"There's a powerful move at the end of the president's speech to suggest that the Catholic stance on the right to life -- the stance of Notre Dame -- is a matter of mere faith, and not a reasoned stance at all. … 'Parochial' is a very loaded word to use," noted Garnett.
"So it appears that Obama agrees with what Father Hesburgh believed in the 1960s, but does not agree with what Pope Benedict believes today, which implies that one set of convictions is based on reason and one is not. But from the Catholic perspective, both of these stances are rooted in the very same universal truth."