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President Barack Obama speaks during the 2008 commencement at Wesleyan University in
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Catholics Protest Obama’s Invitation to Notre Dame Commencement

March 26, 2009 04:00 PM
by Denis Cummings
Notre Dame’s decision to invite President Obama as its commencement speaker has many debating whether Catholic universities should invite speakers who oppose the church’s stance on abortion rights and stem cells research.

Notre Dame Faces Criticism Over Obama Invitation

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The University of Notre Dame’s decision to invite President Barack Obama to speak at its May 17 commencement has drawn outrage from Catholics who feel that his policies on abortion and stem cell research violate Catholic principles. The university is under pressure from alumni, Catholic organizations and church officials to rescind its invitation to Obama.

The Cardinal Newman Society, an organization that advocates for greater orthodoxy in Catholic colleges, has led the opposition to Obama, creating an online petition that has collected over 163,000 signatures as of Thursday morning. Bishop John D’Arcy of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, which includes Notre Dame, announced Tuesday that he would boycott the commencement.

Since taking office, 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.
“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,” said D’Arcy in a statement.

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; D’Arcy boycotted the event.

Despite the controversy, the university is unlikely to rescind the invitation to Obama. The Rev. John Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president, released a statement Monday defending the university’s decision.

“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,” he said.

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Opinion & Analysis: Should Notre Dame allow Obama to deliver the commencement address?

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.”

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

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