Commencement: Appealing to Faith for Social Change at Notre Dame

In the spirit of the commencement season, EM&P began a five-post series focusing on the U.S. President’s annual commencement speech at several universities. Presidential commencement speeches are an intriguing facet of political communication. Unlike the constitutionally mandated State of the Union address, the President is not obliged to deliver any commencement speech. Rather, the commencement addresses have slowly become a cherished tradition to proud graduates since Woodrow Wilson first spoke in 1914 at the United States Naval Academy.  Speeches have often defined a sitting President’s political ideology, as well as provided a glimpse into their future policies. At the same time, graduates receive a message which integrates school pride and optimism for the future of America.  

We first looked at President Bill Clinton’s attempt to unify supporters and opponents of Affirmative Action during a 1997 appearance at the University of California—San Diego’s Preuss Charter School.President Barack Obama expressed his hope towards the protection of life in 2009, despite his pro-choice stance alienating members of the Roman Catholic-affiliated University of Notre Dame. In this third speech, the President acted as a rallying figure towards unity. The University of Notre Dame once again became the center for rallying around the Roman Catholic tradition of social justice.

Religion as the Benchmark towards Unity

Even if religious conflicts are absent prior to a President’s commencement appearance, the President can still appeal to religion. Usually, this strategy was used when a President appeared at a sectarian school. However, since the President speaks to a global audience during their speech, some may wonder why religion would be addressed to build unity. After all, there are many people in the world that profess non-Christian faiths, as well as no faith at all. The answer to this question lies in how the President can be viewed as a “goodwill ambassador.” Presidents addressing graduates of religiously affiliated schools will defer to that religion, even though the commencement address would be heard worldwide. In respectfully paying tribute to a given faith, the President shows the world that maintaining peaceful relations with different faiths is indeed possible and commendable.

President George H.W. Bush at the University of Notre Dame, 1992

In May 1992, President George H.W. Bush visited the University of Notre Dame. Bush was no doubt aware that Notre Dame is considered one of the most prestigious Roman Catholic-affiliated institutions of higher education in the U.S. In light of this knowledge, Bush paid tribute to Roman Catholicism in a subtly unique way:

Let us look objectively at a few brief and sad facts. In comparison with other countries, the Census Bureau found that the U.S. has the highest divorce rate, the highest number of children involved in divorce, the highest teenage pregnancy rates, the highest abortion rates, the highest percentage of children living in a single-parent household, and the highest percentage of violent deaths among our precious young. These are not the kind of records that we want to have as a great country.[1]

Presidents have rarely “shocked” their audience with startling statistics. These statistics are surprising because they contradict traditional American values. However, the main objective of these statistics was to establish a need that the Roman Catholic Church could help solve.

The Catholic Church is public about its views against divorce, pre-marital sex, abortion, and murder.[2] While the Catholic Church is against these societal vices, these problems cannot be solved without action. Knowing that his audience consisted of a sizeable number of Catholics, President Bush offered up a challenge to the students of Notre Dame. In order to make this challenge more appealing and familiar, Bush alluded to a recent Pope who was widely popular worldwide. Bush continued: “As Pope John XXIII said, ‘The family is the first essential cell of human society.’ The family is the primary and most critical institution in America's communities.”[3]Bush was wise to choose Pope John XXIII as a Catholic figure to allude to. Any Pope can reach out to the global community; however, Pope John’s warm, media-friendly character especially captivated the world. Bush, a Protestant, used that fact to appeal to the predominately Catholic audience.

President Ronald Reagan at the University of Notre Dame, 1981

Precisely 11 years earlier, Ronald Reagan visited the University of Notre Dame to deliver a slightly different commencement address. Just four days earlier, Pope John Paul II was shot while riding in his “Pope Mobile” in St. Peter’s Square. Although the Pope was in stable condition by the time Reagan gave his commencement address, the world was nonetheless still reeling from the shooting. Reagan paid tribute to the Pope by observing:

One can't say those words—compassion, sacrifice, and endurance—without thinking of the irony that one who so exemplifies them, Pope John Paul II, a man of peace and goodness, an inspiration to the world, would be struck by a bullet from a man towards whom he could only feel compassion and love. It was Pope John Paul II who warned in last year's encyclical[4] on mercy and justice against certain economic theories that use the rhetoric of class struggle to justify injustice. He said, ‘In the name of an alleged justice the neighbor is sometimes destroyed, killed, deprived of liberty or stripped of fundamental human rights.’[5]

In many ways, Reagan’s tribute to Pope John Paul II proved to be a rousing success amidst tragedy. Choosing John Paul II as the subject for his commencement address was ideal because, besides addressing a current event, John Paul II was the leader for Roman Catholics all over the world. For the Roman Catholic-affiliated University of Notre Dame, this proved to be no exception.

Even though Notre Dame and John Paul II are firmly rooted within the Roman Catholic faith, Reagan’s tribute to the Pope transcended the beliefs of Roman Catholicism. When the attempted murder of Pope John Paul II occurred on May 13, 1981, Catholics and non-Catholics worldwide were brought together in prayer for the ailing pontiff. When it was announced that the Pope was stable, the Pope later forgave his would-be assassin and called upon the people to, “pray for my brother…whom I have sincerely forgiven.”[6] By this simple request for kindness, Catholics and non-Catholics alike witnessed what Reagan called “compassion, sacrifice, and endurance.”


Up to this point, we can see that the President has several rhetorical strategies to bring unity to a campus. Unlike the stories of Clinton and Obama, both Reagan and Bush Sr. appeared on a campus that was not already plagued in controversy. However, both U.S. Presidents at Notre Dame directly addressed subjects that affected the entire country. For Bush, this was the startling statistics of domestic unrest towards young people. For Reagan, this was the near-assassination of Pope John Paul II.

While each President could have spoken about their recently-enacted policies, they chose instead to integrate recent news events. In doing so, they highlighted a need that the Catholic Church was actively trying to solve. They were also able to use the addressed social need to commend the school and graduates for their commitment towards social justice. In a not-so-subtle way, both Bush and Reagan called on graduates to use their Notre Dame education for positive social change.



[1]"Remarks at the University of Notre Dame Commencement Ceremony in South Bend, Indiana. May 17, 1992.” (accessed April 29, 2011).

[2]Libreria Editrice Vaticana. "Catechism of the Catholic Church." (accessed November 25, 2011). The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church is the text of the official teachings of the Church. It is issued by the Vatican, the global headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church. According to part 3, section 2, chapter 2 paragraph 2384 of the Catholic Catechism: “Divorce is a grave offense against the natural law. It claims to break the contract, to which the spouses freely consented, to live with each other till death. Divorce does injury to the covenant of salvation, of which sacramental marriage is the sign. Contracting a new union, even if it is recognized by civil law, adds to the gravity of the rupture: the remarried spouse is then in a situation of public and permanent adultery…” Libreria Editrice Vaticana. "Catechism.” According to part 3, section 2, chapter 2 paragraph 2353 of the Catholic Catechism: “Fornication is carnal union between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman. It is gravely contrary to the dignity of persons and of human sexuality which is naturally ordered to the good of spouses and the generation and education of children. Moreover, it is a grave scandal when there is corruption of the young.” Libreria Editrice Vaticana, "Catechism,” According to part 3, section 2, chapter 2 paragraph 2261 of the Catholic Catechism: Scripture specifies the prohibition contained in the fifth commandment: "Do not slay the innocent and the righteous."61 The deliberate murder of an innocent person is gravely contrary to the dignity of the human being, to the golden rule, and to the holiness of the Creator. The law forbidding it is universally valid: it obliges each and everyone, always and everywhere.

[3]“Bush, Notre Dame, 1992.”

[4]The Vatican, "John Paul II: Encyclicals with Study Tools." (accessed November 25, 2011). An encyclical is a letter promulgated by the Pope that addresses a specific issue that is important to the Roman Catholic Church. Ronald Reagan is referring to Pope John Paul II’s encyclical “Dives In Mesercicordia,” which is Latin for “Rich in Mercy.” The encyclical, which was promulgated on November 30, 1980, examines both the need for God’s mercy and human mercy.

[5]"Address at Commencement Exercises at the University of Notre Dame May 17, 1981.” (accessed April 29, 2011).

[6]"Holy See defers to courts on possible release of would-be Papal assassin." Catholic News

Agency, January 9, 2006. (accessed November 25, 2011).