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Since it was announced that President Barack Obama was going to be giving the commencement address for the 2009 graduating class of Notre Dame, the Vatican has been deafeningly silent. Close observers interpreted this silence as tacit approval of the Obama administration, and as a friendly opening for dialogue. This contrasted sharply with the outspokenness of a small group of Conservative Catholics (both among the laity and hierarchy) who have been against the President’s visit and the honorary degree the school was going to give him. Again, this was a small group, only 28% of Catholics, while half of Catholics approved of the President’s address and the remaining 22% not having an opinion either way. A recent poll also shows that 67% of Catholics approve of the way President Obama has run the country. Last November, 54% of Catholics voted for Barack Obama.
Ah, but the Vatican has ended its silence, which might prove problematic for Conservative Catholics.
Giuseppe Fiorentino, writing in the Vatican’s newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, has concluded that President Barack Obama has been a somewhat cautious leader, not the radical socialist Conservatives had portrayed him as. Fiorentino also cites Obama’s approaches to the economy and banking regulations, which have not been exactly bold; in other words, he has not used this as an opportunity to lead the U.S. towards socialism.
Obama’s stance on so-called “life issues” has not been as “apocalyptic” as some U.S. Catholic leaders have suggested, according to the paper. “The new guidelines regarding research on embryonic stem cells do not in fact follow the change of course planned months ago. They do not allow the creation of new embryos for research purposes or therapeutic cloning for reproductive purposes, and federal funds may only be used for experimentation with redundant embryos,” Fiorentino writes. “The search for common ground seems to be the road chosen by the President of the United States, Barack Obama, to confront the sensitive abortion issue,” L’Osservatore says. Instead of confronting his opponents, Obama has shown that he wants to engage in a positive dialogue and find “common ground.” They are also heartened to hear that he does not intend to pursue ultra-liberal laws regarding abortion.
The paper also noted President Obama’s intention to include a “conscience clause” in the Freedom of Choice Act, which would allow doctors who are morally opposed to abortion to refuse participation in abortion procedures. In addition to seeking dialogue, the President, Fiorentino writes, also wants to reduce the number of abortions, which includes a plan to facilitate the adoption process, and providing health care for women who do decide to keep their unborn child.
This article has been yet another positive sign from the Vatican, following its early May issue entitled Obama in the White House: The Hundred Days the Didn’t Shake the World.
Here is the full article:
Obama in the White House
The hundred days that didn’t shake the world
One thousand three hundred sixty-one days separate Barack Obama from the end of his mandate. No one can know nor imagine what will happen in this time. In fact, many analysts describe the “occupation” of the president as a reactive one. Planned political strategy leaves the post — as the case of the Bush presidency after 11 September 2001 proves — to choices dictated by events.
In another perspective, this 29 April marks a hundred days of the first African-American president in the White House, traditionally a much-awaited point for an initial assessment, however inevitably partial. But rivers of ink have already flowed over these weeks that, according to many commentators, they’ve signified a decisive turn from the past, a redefinition of the very image of the United States in the world.
It might be that this capacity to communicate is one of the great traits of the president, recalling that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Like the architect of the New Deal, Obama utilizes the modern media — radio then, internet today — to spread the message of hope which the nation needs. The great crisis of 1929 can’t be compared to the current one. And still the imprint seems the same. So too the ability of shifting the attention of public opinion in a pragmatic and functional way.
In these months Obama has seen his popularity grow only by having opened the doors to changes: he proposed direct negotiations with Iran to resolve the question of Tehran’s nuclear program and invited Russia to new discussions for the reduction of its strategic arsenals. Above all, he’s proposed a different role for the United States on the American continent, beginning to imagine new relations with Cuba. But in other and more concrete international scenarios, continuity in respect to the past is anything but compromised. Like in Iraq, where the administration is applying the exit strategy begun by Bush, and in Afghanistan. Here — Obama declared — is found the new front of the fight against terrorism. New only to a point, as it was in Afghanistan where the first US military intervention after September 11 took place. And not everything as a wish for discontinuity can be seen by the retention of Robert Gates at the helm of the Pentagon.
Even when, opening to Cuba, he’s broken a taboo, Obama isn’t much moved from his predecessors in the request for tangible signs on the part of Havana.
Similar evaluations can be made for the economic stimulus undertaken by the president. It’s been accused of excessive statism by some, if not placing the country on the path to socialism. A calmer analysis, however, notes that Obama moves with caution: very reluctant in the face of the nationalization of financial institutions, he opened the private sector to his plan to save credit institutions. Revealing, according to the International Herald Tribune, an unexpected similarity with Ronald Reagan, the president who placed a flag for the state’s retreat from the private sector. And much more statism revealed itself in the final months of the Bush-Paulson team with the partial nationalization of the titans of property lending, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
Even on ethical questions — which, from the electoral campaign, have been the forceful concern of the Catholic episcopate — Obama doesn’t seem to have confirmed the radical changes he had aired. The new guidelines regarding embryonic stem-cell research don’t, in fact, line up with the changes foreseen months ago. They don’t permit the creation of new embryos for purposes of research or therapy, for cloning or reproductive ends, and federal funds may be used solely for experimentation with surplus embryos. These don’t remove the motives for criticism in the face of unacceptable forms of bioengineering that contrast with the human identity of the embryo, but the new regulations are less permissive.
A certain surprise has otherwise come about in these days through a bill designed by the Democratic party: the Pregnant Women Support Act would move to limit the number of abortions in the United States through initiatives of aid for distressed women. It’s not a negation of the doctrine until now expressed by Obama on matters of the interruption of pregnancy, but the legislative project could represent a rebalancing in support of motherhood.
Signals of innovations in the Obama administration are undeniable. Above all on matters of the care of environment and in particular the partnership that seems born with Beijing. But maybe it’s early to talk of revolution or imbalance in judgment, whether positive or negative. These hundred days have not shaken the world. Better to await the next one thousand three hundred sixty-one.
First of all, for those who are unaware, I am a practicing Catholic. Now…
Conservative Catholics have lost their minds. They have confused their faith with their extreme right-wing ideology. These wayward souls have even gone so far as to align themselves with right-wing Christian groups who hate the Catholic Church, have likened the Pope to the anti-christ, and regard the Church as inherently evil. Have these Catholic Conservatives no shame? Do they not realize that they have made a pact with people who hate them and are only using them for political gain?
The reason I write this today is because President Barack Obama gave the commencement address at Notre Dame, where he was also given an honorary degree. Conservative Catholics, along with their right-wing Christian/Republican friends, have gone mad over this development. Michael Steele, the Republican National Committee Chairman, said it was “inappropriate” for Notre Dame to give Obama an honorary degree. Other U.S.Catholic leaders have rebuked Notre Dame for its invitation of President Barack Obama and intend to boycott his visit to the University. The president of the Catholic League, Bill Donahue, was quite vocal in his opposition to the President’s presence at Notre Dame, saying, “To give him an honorary degree would be like Howard University giving David Duke a degree in racial politics.” Donahue, keep in mind, is a flaming Republican, who rarely speaks out against the shortcomings of Conservative politicians. Only 55 American Bishops (roughly 20%) have complained about Obam’s address, as have some Cardinals including James Francis Stafford. He has gone so far as to say that Obama has “an agenda and vision that are aggressive, disruptive and apocalyptic.” Strong words, but do they reflect reality?
The protests against the President’s address at Notre Dame included Alan Keyes, and other Republican figures. As many as 39 people have been arrested because of the address, including Norma McCorvey, better known as “Roe,” the plaintiff in the Roe v. Wade case that made abortion legal. She has since become a pro-life activist. Protesters, including Keyes, were pushing strollers containing dolls covered in fake blood. Among those who were arrested was a Priest, who complained aloud, “Notre Dame is arresting a priest. Why are you arresting a priest for trying to stop the killing of a baby? You’ve got it all backward.” Well, apparently trespassing is illegal, and that was why he was arrested, along with Keyes. Many of the critics of the decision to invite the President have also called for the resignation of Notre Dame’s President Rev. John I. Jenkins, gathering some 360,000 online signatures. Though the protests and criticisms have been strong, Jenkins has been quiet and resolved. He did, however, put out a statement: In a statement well before the ceremony, Jenkins wrote that the invitation: This “does not mean we support all of his positions … [on] abortion and embryonic stem cell research.”
In what appears to be a somewhat silent break with American Catholic officials, the Vatican has been mum on the controversy. In late April, for instance, the Vatican’s official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, essentially chastised the American Catholic leadership for exaggerated “forceful concerns”. The document, though pointing out differences with President Obama, seems to be reaching out to the new President: “On ethical questions, too — which from the time of the electoral campaign have been the subject of strong worries by the Catholic bishops — Obama does not seem to have confirmed the radical innovations that he had discussed.” In other words, he is not the radical they worried about initially. Indeed, the Vatican seems more interested in building stronger ties to Jewish and Muslim communites, as well as encouraging progress on peace in the middle-east. Since Obama’s election, the Vatican has shown signs that they are quite impressed and enthusiastic about the new President, and their silence on this issue is yet another sign that the Vatican is looking forward to working with this administration on a range of issues including, Global Climate Change, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, combating poverty, encouraging fairer economic policies for poor families, health care, a living wage, working with women who are pregnant in order to help them choose life over abortion, and a whole host of other issues.
In short, the Vatican and the Obama administration have far more issues in common than issues that divide them.
The same is true of Catholic American laity. 67% of Catholics approve of the way he is running the country, according to a Pew Poll. Pew also found that half of American Catholics supported Notre Dame’s invitation of Obama, while only 28% opposed the invitation. 22% had no opinion. Just as a reminder, it is also important to remember that Obama won 54% of the Catholic vote in November’s election. Again, it is the small, albeit vocal, group of Conservative Catholics who confuse their allegiance to the GOP with their faith that are opposed to Obama’s commencement address.
As President Barack Obama took the stage and began his speech before the 12,000 people, there were some boos, which were interrupted and quieted by the graduating class and commencement audience. One heckler was likewise heckled until silenced. Before he spoke, Rev. Jenkins praised the President for his ability to speak with people who disagree with him, unlike those “who [stop] talking to those who disagree with him.” This was a not-so subtle jab at those who opposed Obama’s address. As the President spoke, he was supported with cheers, loud applause, and standing ovations. Many students had the words “Viva Obama” written on their caps. Critics wondered what Obama could possibly say, assuming, I suppose, that being pro-choice would only confound him whilst among a pro-life audience. Instead, as the President often does, he reached out to the critics, offering an opportunity for “fair minded” discussions about abortion. Striking a different tone than those zealots who would shut him up, he also highlighted their similarities: “Let us work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions. Let’s reduce unintended pregnancies. Let’s make adoption more available. Let’s provide care and support for women who do carry their child to term.” He recognized that “no matter how much we want to fudge it … the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable,” but he urged that people stop “reducing those with differing views to caricature. Open hearts. Open minds. Fair-minded words. It’s a way of life that always has been the Notre Dame tradition.” “I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away,” the president said. “Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature.” His speech was quite inspiring, and it demonstrates the President’s commitment to bridging the gap between “enemies” with communication. He’s a uniter, not a divider.
But it was not only the President asking for “fair-minded” discussions, the Valedictorian, Brennan Bollman, (in an interview with the Huffington Post) said that “this issue has not divided the campus by any means,” because the President is bringing “everyone to the table.” In response to those Catholics who have seen red over the President’s address, Bollman responded: “We know exactly what it is to be Catholic because we are inviting President Obama to speak to us.” She even went as far as to say that President Obama has “given [respect] to human life through many of his policies,” adding that many of his policies reflected Catholic values: “President Obama takes a lot of pro-life positions. I don’t think that he is strongly pro-abortion.”
Catholics, like myself, are proud of the President’s speech. We’ll see how the Conservatives will respond.
Below is the full text of the address:
Well, first of all, congratulations, Class of 2009. Congratulations to all the parents, the cousins — the aunts, the uncles — all the people who helped to bring you to the point that you are here today. Thank you so much to Father Jenkins for that extraordinary introduction, even though you said what I want to say much more elegantly. You are doing an extraordinary job as president of this extraordinary institution. Your continued and courageous — and contagious — commitment to honest, thoughtful dialogue is an inspiration to us all.
Good afternoon. To Father Hesburgh, to Notre Dame trustees, to faculty, to family: I am honored to be here today. And I am grateful to all of you for allowing me to be a part of your graduation.
And I also want to thank you for the honorary degree that I received. I know it has not been without controversy. I dont know if youre aware of this, but these honorary degrees are apparently pretty hard to come by. So far I’m only 1 for 2 as President. Father Hesburgh is 150 for 150. I guess that’s better. So, Father Ted, after the ceremony, maybe you can give me some pointers to boost my average.
I also want to congratulate the Class of 2009 for all your accomplishments. And since this is Notre Dame …
(Speech is interrupted by anti-abortion protesters.)
We’re fine, everybody. We’re following Brennans adage that we dont do things easily. We’re not going to shy away from things that are uncomfortable sometimes.
Now, since this is Notre Dame I think we should talk not only about your accomplishments in the classroom, but also in the competitive arena. No, dont worry, I’m not going to talk about that. We all know about this university’s proud and storied football team, but I also hear that Notre Dame holds the largest outdoor 5-on-5 basketball tournament in the world — Bookstore Basketball.
Now this excites me. I want to congratulate the winners of this year’s tournament, a team by the name of “Hallelujah Holla Back.” Congratulations. Well done. Though I have to say, I am personally disappointed that the “Barack OBallers” did not pull it out this year. So next year, if you need a 6-2 forward with a decent jumper, you know where I live.
Every one of you should be proud of what you have achieved at this institution. One hundred and sixty-three classes of Notre Dame graduates have sat where you sit today. Some were here during years that simply rolled into the next without much notice or fanfare — periods of relative peace and prosperity that required little by way of sacrifice or struggle.
You, however, are not getting off that easy. You have a different deal. Your class has come of age at a moment of great consequence for our nation and for the world — a rare inflection point in history where the size and scope of the challenges before us require that we remake our world to renew its promise; that we align our deepest values and commitments to the demands of a new age. It’s a privilege and a responsibility afforded to few generations — and a task that youre now called to fulfill.
This generation, your generation is the one that must find a path back to prosperity and decide how we respond to a global economy that left millions behind even before the most recent crisis hit — an economy where greed and short-term thinking were too often rewarded at the expense of fairness, and diligence, and an honest day’s work.
Your generation must decide how to save God’s creation from a changing climate that threatens to destroy it. Your generation must seek peace at a time when there are those who will stop at nothing to do us harm, and when weapons in the hands of a few can destroy the many. And we must find a way to reconcile our ever-shrinking world with its ever-growing diversity — diversity of thought, diversity of culture, and diversity of belief.
In short, we must find a way to live together as one human family. And it’s this last challenge that Id like to talk about today, despite the fact that Father John stole all my best lines. For the major threats we face in the 21st century — whether it’s global recession or violent extremism; the spread of nuclear weapons or pandemic disease — these things do not discriminate. They do not recognize borders. They do not see color. They do not target specific ethnic groups.
Moreover, no one person, or religion, or nation can meet these challenges alone. Our very survival has never required greater cooperation and greater understanding among all people from all places than at this moment in history.
Unfortunately, finding that common ground — recognizing that our fates are tied up, as Dr. King said, in a “single garment of destiny” — is not easy. And part of the problem, of course, lies in the imperfections of man — our selfishness, our pride, our stubbornness, our acquisitiveness, our insecurities, our egos; all the cruelties large and small that those of us in the Christian tradition understand to be rooted in original sin. We too often seek advantage over others. We cling to outworn prejudice and fear those who are unfamiliar. Too many of us view life only through the lens of immediate self-interest and crass materialism; in which the world is necessarily a zero-sum game. The strong too often dominate the weak, and too many of those with wealth and with power find all manner of justification for their own privilege in the face of poverty and injustice. And so, for all our technology and scientific advances, we see here in this country and around the globe violence and want and strife that would seem sadly familiar to those in ancient times.
We know these things; and hopefully one of the benefits of the wonderful education that you’ve received here at Notre Dame is that you’ve had time to consider these wrongs in the world; perhaps recognized impulses in yourself that you want to leave behind. You’ve grown determined, each in your own way, to right them. And yet, one of the vexing things for those of us interested in promoting greater understanding and cooperation among people is the discovery that even bringing together persons of good will, bringing together men and women of principle and purpose — even accomplishing that can be difficult.
The soldier and the lawyer may both love this country with equal passion, and yet reach very different conclusions on the specific steps needed to protect us from harm. The gay activist and the evangelical pastor may both deplore the ravages of HIV/AIDS, but find themselves unable to bridge the cultural divide that might unite their efforts. 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.
The question, then — the question then is how do we work through these conflicts? Is it possible for us to join hands in common effort? As citizens of a vibrant and varied democracy, how do we engage in vigorous debate? How does each of us remain firm in our principles, and fight for what we consider right, without, as Father John said, demonizing those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side?
And of course, nowhere do these questions come up more powerfully than on the issue of abortion.
As I considered the controversy surrounding my visit here, I was reminded of an encounter I had during my Senate campaign, one that I describe in a book I wrote called “The Audacity of Hope.” A few days after I won the Democratic nomination, I received an e-mail from a doctor who told me that while he voted for me in the Illinois primary, he had a serious concern that might prevent him from voting for me in the general election. He described himself as a Christian who was strongly pro-life — but that was not what was preventing him potentially from voting for me.
What bothered the doctor was an entry that my campaign staff had posted on my Web site — an entry that said I would fight “right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman’s right to choose.” The doctor said he had assumed I was a reasonable person, he supported my policy initiatives to help the poor and to lift up our educational system, but that if I truly believed that every pro-life individual was simply an ideologue who wanted to inflict suffering on women, then I was not very reasonable. He wrote, “I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words.” Fair-minded words.
After I read the doctor’s letter, I wrote back to him and I thanked him. And I didn’t change my underlying position, but I did tell my staff to change the words on my Web site. And I said a prayer that night that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me. Because when we do that — when we open up our hearts and our minds to those who may not think precisely like we do or believe precisely what we believe — that’s when we discover at least the possibility of common ground.
That’s when we begin to say, “Maybe we won’t agree on abortion, but we can still agree that this heart-wrenching decision for any woman is not made casually, it has both moral and spiritual dimensions.”
So let us work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions, let’s reduce unintended pregnancies. Let’s make adoption more available. Let’s provide care and support for women who do carry their children to term. Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded not only in sound science, but also in clear ethics, as well as respect for the equality of women.” Those are things we can do.
Now, understand — understand, Class of 2009, I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. Because no matter how much we may want to fudge it — indeed, while we know that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory — the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable. Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature.
Open hearts. Open minds. Fair-minded words. It’s a way of life that has always been the Notre Dame tradition. Father Hesburgh has long spoken of this institution as both a lighthouse and a crossroads. A lighthouse that stands apart, shining with the wisdom of the Catholic tradition, while the crossroads is where “differences of culture and religion and conviction can coexist with friendship, civility, hospitality, and especially love.” And I want to join him and Father John in saying how inspired I am by the maturity and responsibility with which this class has approached the debate surrounding today’s ceremony. You are an example of what Notre Dame is about.
This tradition of cooperation and understanding is one that I learned in my own life many years ago — also with the help of the Catholic Church.
You see, I was not raised in a particularly religious household, but my mother instilled in me a sense of service and empathy that eventually led me to become a community organizer after I graduated college. And a group of Catholic churches in Chicago helped fund an organization known as the Developing Communities Project, and we worked to lift up South Side neighborhoods that had been devastated when the local steel plant closed.
And it was quite an eclectic crew — Catholic and Protestant churches, Jewish and African American organizers, working-class black, white, and Hispanic residents — all of us with different experiences, all of us with different beliefs. But all of us learned to work side by side because all of us saw in these neighborhoods other human beings who needed our help — to find jobs and improve schools. We were bound together in the service of others.
And something else happened during the time I spent in these neighborhoods — perhaps because the church folks I worked with were so welcoming and understanding; perhaps because they invited me to their services and sang with me from their hymnals; perhaps because I was really broke and they fed me. Perhaps because I witnessed all of the good works their faith inspired them to perform, I found myself drawn not just to the work with the church; I was drawn to be in the church. It was through this service that I was brought to Christ.
And at the time, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin was the Archbishop of Chicago. For those of you too young to have known him or known of him, he was a kind and good and wise man. A saintly man. I can still remember him speaking at one of the first organizing meetings I attended on the South Side. He stood as both a lighthouse and a crossroads — unafraid to speak his mind on moral issues ranging from poverty and AIDS and abortion to the death penalty and nuclear war. And yet, he was congenial and gentle in his persuasion, always trying to bring people together, always trying to find common ground. Just before he died, a reporter asked Cardinal Bernardin about this approach to his ministry. And he said, “You can’t really get on with preaching the Gospel until you’ve touched hearts and minds.”
My heart and mind were touched by him. They were touched by the words and deeds of the men and women I worked alongside in parishes across Chicago. And Id like to think that we touched the hearts and minds of the neighborhood families whose lives we helped change. For this, I believe, is our highest calling.
Now, you, Class of 2009, are about to enter the next phase of your life at a time of great uncertainty. You’ll be called to help restore a free market that’s also fair to all who are willing to work. You’ll be called to seek new sources of energy that can save our planet; to give future generations the same chance that you had to receive an extraordinary education. And whether as a person drawn to public service, or simply someone who insists on being an active citizen, you will be exposed to more opinions and ideas broadcast through more means of communication than ever existed before. You’ll hear talking heads scream on cable, and you’ll read blogs that claim definitive knowledge, and you will watch politicians pretend they know what they’re talking about. Occasionally, you may have the great fortune of actually seeing important issues debated by people who do know what they’re talking about — by well-intentioned people with brilliant minds and mastery of the facts. In fact, I suspect that some of you will be among those brightest stars.
And in this world of competing claims about what is right and what is true, have confidence in the values with which you’ve been raised and educated. Be unafraid to speak your mind when those values are at stake. Hold firm to your faith and allow it to guide you on your journey. In other words, stand as a lighthouse.
But remember, too, that you can be a crossroads. Remember, too, that the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt. It’s the belief in things not seen. 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.
And this doubt should not push us away our faith. But it should humble us. It should temper our passions, cause us to be wary of too much self-righteousness. It should compel us to remain open and curious and eager to continue the spiritual and moral debate that began for so many of you within the walls of Notre Dame. And 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, and most of all through an abiding example of good works and charity and kindness and service that moves hearts and minds.
For if there is one law that we can be most certain of, it is the law that binds people of all faiths and no faith together. It’s no coincidence that it exists in Christianity and Judaism; in Islam and Hinduism; in Buddhism and humanism. It is, of course, the Golden Rule — the call to treat one another as we wish to be treated. The call to love. The call to serve. To do what we can to make a difference in the lives of those with whom we share the same brief moment on this Earth.
So many of you at Notre Dame — by the last count, upwards of 80 percent — have lived this law of love through the service you’ve performed at schools and hospitals; international relief agencies and local charities. Brennan is just one example of what your class has accomplished. That’s incredibly impressive, a powerful testament to this institution.
Now you must carry the tradition forward. Make it a way of life. Because when you serve, it doesn’t just improve your community, it makes you a part of your community. It breaks down walls. It fosters cooperation. And when that happens — when people set aside their differences, even for a moment, to work in common effort toward a common goal; when they struggle together, and sacrifice together, and learn from one another — then all things are possible.
After all, I stand here today, as President and as an African American, on the 55th anniversary of the day that the Supreme Court handed down the decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Now, Brown was of course the first major step in dismantling the “separate but equal” doctrine, but it would take a number of years and a nationwide movement to fully realize the dream of civil rights for all of God’s children. There were freedom rides and lunch counters and Billy clubs, and there was also a Civil Rights Commission appointed by President Eisenhower. It was the 12 resolutions recommended by this commission that would ultimately become law in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
There were six members of this commission. It included five whites and one African American; Democrats and Republicans; two Southern governors, the dean of a Southern law school, a Midwestern university president, and your own Father Ted Hesburgh, President of Notre Dame. So they worked for two years, and at times, President Eisenhower had to intervene personally since no hotel or restaurant in the South would serve the black and white members of the commission together. And finally, when they reached an impasse in Louisiana, Father Ted flew them all to Notre Dame’s retreat in Land OLakes, Wisconsin — where they eventually overcame their differences and hammered out a final deal.
And years later, President Eisenhower asked Father Ted how on Earth he was able to broker an agreement between men of such different backgrounds and beliefs. And Father Ted simply said that during their first dinner in Wisconsin, they discovered they were all fishermen. And so he quickly readied a boat for a twilight trip out on the lake. They fished, and they talked, and they changed the course of history.
I will not pretend that the challenges we face will be easy, or that the answers will come quickly, or that all our differences and divisions will fade happily away — because life is not that simple. It never has been. But as you leave here today, remember the lessons of Cardinal Bernardin, of Father Hesburgh, of movements for change both large and small. Remember that each of us, 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.
If nothing else, that knowledge should give us faith that through our collective labor, and God’s providence, and our willingness to shoulder each other’s burdens, America will continue on its precious journey towards that more perfect union. Congratulations, Class of 2009. May God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America.