Barack Obama had words of wisdom for the Notre Dame Class of 2009, but the Rev. John I. Jenkins, the university's president, also had some. Jenkins' should not be overshadowed. Obama's appearance at Notre Dame was controversial because of his support for abortion rights. Despite loud, visible and persistent protests, Obama refused to decline the invitation and Jenkins declined to rescind it. Jenkins told the graduates, "The world you enter today is torn by division - and is fixed on its differences."
"Differences must be acknowledged, and, in some cases, cherished," he continued, acknowledging the abortion issue. "But too often, differences lead to pride in self and contempt for others, until two sides - taking opposing views of the same difference - demonize each other. Whether the difference is political, religious, racial or national - trust falls, anger rises and cooperation ends, even for the sake of causes all sides care about."
Pay attention. Regardless of one's feelings about the president, the Catholic Church, abortion or any other controversial issue, there is no denying that what Jenkins describes is the state of national politics, and too often it is the state of local politics, as well. It has become far too easy to resort to name-calling. The names of political parties and ideologies long cherished in this country have been turned into slurs. Civility rarely is valued and even more rarely observed.
Not only is that conduct reprehensible, it is counterproductive. Few are willing to claim the middle ground if it means moving closer to their opponents. Too many are unwilling to agree to a solution that provides a small victory, or even anything less than a demoralizing loss, to those who disagree with any small detail of their positions.
Nothing gets done. Especially at the national level, because the voting population is so evenly divided, the pendulum swings back and forth between major parties, each seeking to undo what the other recently has accomplished. The minority parties do their best to obstruct the majority party, and then the roles are reversed and the majority party decries the lack of cooperation it is receiving. Winning is everything, more important than reaching, or even admitting to, a common goal.
Jenkins commended Obama for not avoiding Notre Dame, "though he knows well that we are fully supportive of Church teaching on the sanctity of life, and we oppose his policies on abortion and embryonic stem-cell research." But, he said, "President Obama is not someone who stops talking to those who differ with him."
All Americans should hope that the president listens to those who are his political opponents, and that those opponents listen to him - really listen, not just smile and nod but not bother to hear and consider. That is what Americans ask of opponents, even enemies, in other parts of the world; it certainly is a courtesy that ought to be extended to one's fellow citizens.
Rev. Jenkins stood up for the Golden Rule. The protesters stood up for their own deeply held values. The president withstood considerable unpleasantness to meet, on their own turf, a group of constituents whose beliefs he knew differed markedly from his own.
That's as it should be. Done well, that is what will move this country forward. Much can be accomplished with civil dialogue and, as Obama said, by open hearts and minds, fair-minded words and a genuine search for common ground.