The University of Notre Dame’s commencement address was delivered on May 20, 2001 by President George W. Bush. To the astonishment of many observers, the avatar of compassionate conservatism sounded like a pope delivering a liberal encyclical. Post-ceremony exegesis rules out composition by the president himself or Notre Dame’s public relations department. But whoever the wordsmith, the Vatican should hire him/her immediately.
There were, of course, howls of protest at the president’s appropriation of Catholicspeak as part of his campaign to win Catholic voters in 2004. Fortunately Monsignor George G. Higgins, who received Notre Dame’s prestigious Laetare Medal, set matters right in his brief address from which we excerpt the following: "There are those among us who argue that evangelization of the poor and also of the new immigrants must be exclusively spiritual. That’s a seductive half-truth. The role of the church and its ministry...in addressing the social and economic problems of the new immigrants and indeed of all the impoverished people in our society...is obviously a complex problem and one that leaves ample room for honest differences of opinion about who speaks for the church, under what rubric, or degree of specificity... but to state simplistically that the church’s evangelization should be exclusively spiritual finds no support anywhere in the entire corpus of Catholic social teaching."
There were also strenuous objections to the president’s drawing Dorothy Day into his orbit. We publish below a letter from her daughter and granddaughter, Tamar and Martha Hennessy.
"As the daughter and granddaughter of Dorothy Day, we feel compelled to speak about the use of her name and work in George W. Bush’s commencement speech at Notre Dame. Dorothy was an ardent believer in social justice, the rights of workers, and care of the disenfranchised. Her life’s work was dedicated to picking up the pieces of human wreckage, the result of policies that continue to be perpetuated by the Bush administration. It is shameful to have her efforts associated with an administration that gives priority to corporate profiteering over human needs. Dorothy understood that a just system was as important as her ideal of personalism, where each takes individual responsibility for the well-being of all. George W. Bush’s speechwriters have distorted the message of Dorothy Day by using her words on the works of mercy in their arsenal of deceit."