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Mary Ann Glendon

Ex-Vatican Ambassador Declines Notre Dame Honor Over Obama Invitation

April 27, 2009 07:30 PM
by Denis Cummings
Mary Ann Glendon is declining Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal due to the university’s decision to name President Obama as its commencement speaker.

Glendon Declines Laetare Medal

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A Harvard University law professor and former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, Glendon released a letter Monday announcing that she will not accept the Laetare Medal at the University of Notre Dame's May 17 commencement because the university is also honoring President Barack Obama. The letter was posted on the blog First Things.

Notre Dame’s decision to invite Obama as its commencement speaker and give him an honorary degree has angered many Catholics who object to the president’s positions on abortion rights and stem cells research. They argue that honoring Obama is a violation of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ position that “Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles.”

In the controversy surrounding the inivitation to Obama, Notre Dame has advertised Glendon’s acceptance as a counterbalance to Obama’s commencement speech. In a letter to Notre Dame President the Rev. John Jenkins, Glendon objected to this role.

In her letter, she said an acceptance speech at commencement wasn't the right place or time to discuss the "very serious problems raised by Notre Dame's decision ... to honor a prominent and uncompromising opponent of the Church's position on issues involving fundamental principles of justice.”

Glendon further wrote that she fears “Notre Dame’s example could have an unfortunate ripple effect,” causing other Catholic institutions to honor speakers who oppose certain principles of the church.

She is the second prominent invitee to the commencement who will not attend, following Bishop John D’Arcy of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, who announced that he was boycotting the event soon after Obama was named the speaker.

Background: Notre Dame commencement controversy

Since taking office in January, Obama has made efforts to overturn several pro-life policies: the "Mexico City Policy," which denied federal funding to organizations that provide abortion-related services in other countries; the "conscience" rule, which allowed medical workers to refuse treatment on moral or religious grounds; and a ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

After he was named the Notre Dame commencement speaker in March, many alumni, Catholic organizations and church officials voiced their objection to his selection and called for Notre Dame to rescind its invitation to Obama. The Cardinal Newman Society, an organization that advocates for greater orthodoxy in Catholic colleges, led the opposition to Obama, creating an online petition that has collected more than 335,000 signatures as of Monday.
D’Arcy released a statement declaring that he would not attend if Obama was honored. “While claiming to separate politics from science, he has in fact separated science from ethics and has brought the American government, for the first time in history, into supporting direct destruction of innocent human life,” he said.

Despite the controversy, the university has stood firm in its decision to invite Obama. In a statement defending the invitation, Jenkins said, “The invitation to President Obama to be our Commencement speaker should not be taken as condoning or endorsing his positions on specific issues regarding the protection of human life.”

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Opinion & Analysis: Debating Obama's commencement invitation

Tom McFeely writes in the National Catholic Register that Notre Dame is “flagrantly” violating the U.S. bishops’ document “Catholics in Political Life,” which mandates that politicians who “act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles” should not be honored.

“You just can’t get more pro-abortion than Obama,” says McFeely. “And no moral principle is more fundamental than the sanctity of innocent human life.”

However, Jesuit author Thomas J. Reese argues that the Obama invitation does not violate “Catholics in Political Life,” and points out that there was no controversy when he was invited to the Al Smith dinner during the presidential campaign.

Joe Feuerherd of the National Catholic Reporter accuses Cardinal Newman Society President Patrick Reilly of stirring up outrage to raise money for his organization. “All this, says the Society, is done in the name of preserving the ‘Catholic identity’—which in Reilly’s view seems threatened anytime any liberal or any Democrat disagrees, however mildly, with church teaching on abortion and gays,” he says.

Reese adds that restricting pro-choice speakers on Catholic campuses would have a detrimental effect on Catholic universities. “Canon law aside, people need to recognize that Catholic universities have to be places where freedom of speech and discussion is recognized and valued,” he writes. “Not to allow a diversity of speakers on campus is to put Catholic universities into a ghetto.”

The Wall Street Journal’s William McGurn counters, saying that by honoring pro-choice politicians Notre Dame and other Catholic colleges have acted as “classic enablers” in advancing the pro-choice movement.

“In the end, the result is moral incoherence,” he writes. “It is an incoherence in which abortion-rights advocates have the most to gain, because it demoralizes those who support the cause of life while removing fears of even the slightest social sanction for those who do not. And it is an incoherence we see all across American Catholic life today.”

Historical Context: Pro-choice politicians at the Notre Dame commencement

Notre Dame has faced similar criticism in the past for inviting pro-choice politicians to speak on campus. In 1984, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo gave an address in which he argued that “Catholic politicians like himself could oppose abortion without trying to outlaw it,” according to The Star Press (Ind.).

In 1992, New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan gave the commencement address and was awarded the Laetare Medal at a ceremony boycotted by D’Arcy.

Reference: “Catholics in Political Life”; Cuomo’s address

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