Notre Dame Protest of Pence Twists Catholic Social Teaching

by Alexandra DeSanctis

This Sunday, vice president Mike Pence will return to his home state of Indiana to deliver the commencement address at the University of Notre Dame. For the third time in several years, the school’s graduation ceremony will be plagued by controversy, as a group of students plans to walk out during Pence’s speech.

The students’ main grievance is that Pence’s supposedly “anti-LGBT” record as governor of Indiana is harmful to vulnerable members of the Notre Dame community. The group’s Facebook event indicates that around 70 students have signed up to take part in the walkout, and about 2,000 seniors will graduate from the university on Sunday.

This isn’t completely new territory for Notre Dame. In 2009, hundreds of graduating seniors planned an alternative ceremony when President Barack Obama was invited to deliver the commencement address and receive an honorary degree. And just last May, another couple hundred students objected to the university honoring then–vice president Joe Biden with the school’s Laetare Medal, awarded each year to a Catholic public servant for his service to the Church.

While those past disagreements resulted in some graduating seniors skipping their commencement ceremony altogether — more so in the case of 2009 than last year — this year’s protest is an actual disruption of the ceremony itself. This is a crucial distinction. Students are, of course, free to skip their graduation for whatever reason and to publicly explain their reasoning for doing so if they believe it necessary. It’s perfectly acceptable for students to petition their school’s administration to articulate their objections to the chosen speaker and to request a change.

But attending the ceremony only to stand up and file out as the vice president of the country begins to deliver remarks is incredibly disrespectful to Pence’s office, leaving aside questions of merit and his political views. What’s more, such a rude display unquestionably disrupts the event for the students and families attempting to celebrate their graduation day.

Notre Dame spokesman Paul Browne says the university won’t attempt to stop the students from walking out, noting that they plan to “do it in a respectful manner.” It’s difficult to imagine how a group of students turning their backs on the sitting vice president and leaving as he begins to speak might ever take place “respectfully.”

Even aside from this inappropriate method of protest, the students’ reasoning for disapproving of Pence is incredibly shaky. A look back at past commencement controversy might help to put this in context.

In both 2009 and 2016, the protesting students objected primarily to both Obama and Biden’s open support for abortion, a practice that the Catholic Church unequivocally opposes on the grounds that it constitutes murder of innocents. Students believed it was wrong for a Catholic university to honor men who held positions contrary to establish Church teaching on life issues.

This year’s protestors purport to have similar concerns. “The participation and degree-conferring of VP Pence stand as an endorsement of policies and actions which directly contradict Catholic social teachings and values and target vulnerable members of the university’s community,” said one of the chief organizers in a statement.

But judging from the available material from the walkout group, the objections don’t seem to be grounded in an authentic understanding of Catholic teaching. In reality, Pence doesn’t hold a single political position that “directly contradicts” Catholic social teaching. While the group never elucidates specific policy areas to substantiate its claims, the students assert that he harms “marginalized people,” presumably a reference to LGBT Americans and illegal immigrants.

It’s understandable that a radically progressive student group would dislike Pence’s approach on these issues, but there is no legitimate argument that Pence’s record contradicts Church teaching. His purportedly “anti-LGBT” stance in reality consists of nothing more than, first, his sharing in the widely held belief that marriage is by definition a union of one man and one woman, and second, his desire to uphold religious-liberty laws protecting the fundamental right of Americans to practice their faith — both of which are fully in accord with long-standing Catholic teaching. And while the Catholic Church speaks out in support of the dignity of immigrants and refugees, it has never promulgated absolute moral teaching that mandates one particular immigration policy over another. In fact, the Church explicitly recognizes the right of nations to enforce their borders and their immigration laws.

But this is the type of weak attack one ought to expect from a student group that protested a lecture given by prominent scholar Charles Murray on the grounds that he is a racist. It is also the group that orchestrated wide-scale walkouts of Notre Dame classes in the fall in an effort to compel the university to declare itself a sanctuary campus for illegal immigrants.

It is worth noting, too, that the justification for the walkout — that the speaker contradicts Catholic social teaching — was apparently not an issue last year for any of these same progressive student groups, none of which protested the honoring of Biden. This is highly hypocritical, given that the former vice president’s long-time support for abortion and same-sex marriage undoubtedly contradicts non-negotiable Catholic teaching on the intrinsic value of life and human sexuality. Furthermore, the walkout group is partnering with South Bend’s left-wing advocacy groups — including the local Planned Parenthood affiliate — to hold an off-campus protest against Pence.

These students have every right to skip their graduation — that’s what I did at Notre Dame last year. But they have no right to interrupt and spoil the ceremony for everyone else. And they certainly have no basis to drag Catholic teaching into it.

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