Protest of Obama at Notre Dame Denounced in Trinity Washington Address

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel speaks of life lessons to the crowd at George Washington University's commencement ceremonies on the Mall.
White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel speaks of life lessons to the crowd at George Washington University's commencement ceremonies on the Mall. (Tom Jackman - The Washington Post)
By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 18, 2009

The controversy surrounding the appearance of President Obama at the University of Notre Dame's commencement ceremonies reverberated through at least one local Catholic graduation yesterday, with the president of Trinity Washington University denouncing the "religious vigilantism" of those who opposed Obama's visit and calling their protests "an embarrassment to all Catholics."

The remarks by Trinity President Patricia McGuire were among the speeches given at graduation ceremonies big and small across the region. The speakers included White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who addressed 5,000 George Washington University graduates on the Mall; federal appeals court Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III, who was at the University of Virginia; and former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw, at the College of William and Mary.

At Washington College on Maryland's Eastern Shore, a senior from Rydal, Pa., was awarded the nation's largest undergraduate literary prize, more than $68,800, for his portfolio of poems, critical essays and creative nonfiction.

The protests and prayer vigils at Notre Dame inspired McGuire to devote nearly all of her speech to the uproar over an invitation by a Catholic institution to a president who is pro-choice on abortion.

Speaking on Trinity's campus in Northeast Washington, McGuire said that "a half-century of progress for Catholic higher education is at risk of slipping back into those insular, parochial pre-Vatican II days" when academic freedom was not valued within the Catholic Church.

"The real scandal at Notre Dame today is not that the president of the United States is speaking at commencement," McGuire said. "The real scandal is the misappropriation of sacred teachings for political ends. The real scandal is the spectacle of ostensibly Catholic mobs camping out at Notre Dame for the specific purpose of disrupting the commencement address of the nation's first African American president. This ugly spectacle is an embarrassment to all Catholics. The face that Catholicism shows to our new president should be one marked with the sign of peace, not distorted in the snarl of hatred."

McGuire continued, "The religious vigilantism apparent in the Notre Dame controversy arises from organizations that have no official standing with the church, but who are successful in gaining media coverage as if they were speaking for Catholicism. . . . They have established themselves as uber-guardians of a belief system we can hardly recognize. Theirs is a narrow faith devoted almost exclusively to one issue. They defend the rights of the unborn but have no charity toward the living. They mock social justice as a liberal mythology."

McGuire's remarks were met with applause from the audience of about 3,500, Trinity spokeswoman Ann Pauley said.

On the Mall, Emanuel stayed away from the controversy and discussed lessons he had learned in his tumultuous political career and in other parts of his life.

Emanuel told the story of slashing his finger as a "pretty reckless" 17-year-old, then going swimming in Lake Michigan before having it treated. He got gangrene, seven infections and a 105-degree fever and found himself in a 96-hour battle "between life and death." Five other patients who were with him in the intensive care unit died, Emanuel said.

"Don't be reckless with what you've been given," Emanuel said. "Take what you do and how you live your life seriously. It is that seriousness of purpose that I learned in that hospital bed for eight weeks, and I'm grateful for that lesson every day of my life."

Emanuel also talked about learning from failure, in particular his demotion from the job of White House political director under President Bill Clinton. "I refused to leave," Emanuel said. He stayed on, helping to pass legislation and "doing my best to prove that I could work well with others. And by the way, that's a work in progress sometimes. But that's the second lesson in life: Learn humility and wisdom when you stumble, because it will help you when you succeed."

In Chestertown, Md., senior William Bruce, 21, won Washington College's Sophie Kerr Prize as the graduating senior with the greatest literary promise. In addition to his poetry, Bruce said he had submitted a 90-page article on a survivor of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. He said he also wrote about his childhood experiences traveling to different churches with his mother, an ordained minister.

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