The uproar is reminiscent of similar controversies in the early 1990s surrounding invited political and even clerical speakers and recipients of university honors.
At present issue is Obama’s pro-choice record on abortion against the University’s Roman Catholic roots and its allegiance to pro-life principles.
In a statement last week, Notre Dame president, Rev. John Jenkins, addressed the controversy by saying that the invitation “should not be taken as condoning or endorsing his (Obama’s) positions on specific issues regarding the protection of human life, including abortion and embryonic stem-cell research.”
Bishop John D’Arcy of the Fort Wayne-South Bend diocese has expressed outrage over the invitation and will boycott the graduation ceremonies.
Anti-abortion activists from around the nation have similarly voiced opposition to the selection of Obama, and the Cardinal Newman Society claims that more than 200,000 people have signed its petition asking the university to rescind the invitation.
On campus, a coalition of university-sponsored student groups (ndresponse.com) is preparing to host teach-ins and other academic and religious events over the coming weeks as it makes its case against the decision to honor Obama.
The group includes Notre dame Right to Life, the Anscombe Society, Notre Dame Identity Project, Militia of the Immaculata, Children of Mary, Orestes Brownson Council, the Irish Rover independent student newspaper, Notre Dame Law School’s Right to Life and St. Thomas More’s Societies.
The student coalition, apparently aware that a circus atmosphere is looming in South Bend, is asking outside groups to defer to the coalition in developing appropriate protest plans.
“We pledge ourselves to acts of witness that will be characterized by respect, prayerfulness, outspoken fidelity to the church, and true concern for the good of our university,” the group said in a statement.
The coalition, however, is clear about its intention to engage the university in a dialogue about Obama’s record on life issues, while also expressing its disappointment with the school’s administration.
“Many pro-life seniors, along with their families, are conflicted about whether to participate in the commencement ceremony,” the statement said.
“The lack of concern for these devoted sons and daughters of Notre Dame, who love this university and the Catholic principles on which it was built, is shameful.”
Within several days of the announcement that Obama was coming to Notre Dame, the student newspaper, The Observer, received more than 600 letters about the issue, about half from the student body and half from alumni. Approximately one-fourth of the students opposed the invitation, while three-fourths of the alumni opposed it.
Among prominent alumni who have weighed in on the controversy is U.S. Rep. Peter King (R.-N.Y.), who received a law degree from Notre Dame in 1968.
“I believe it would be appropriate for Notre Dame to invite the president of the United States to deliver the commencement address, provided the university made it absolutely clear how strongly it disagreed with President Obama’s stand on abortion,” King said in his statement.
“It is wrong, however, for Notre Dame to award President Obama an honorary degree because this will be seen as tacit acceptance of the president’s abortion views which are so antithetical to Catholic moral teaching on the sanctity and value of human life.”
Notre Dame has experienced commencement controversy in the past, most notably involving Irish Americans in May 1992 when President George Herbert Walker Bush gave the commencement address
During those ceremonies, protesters denounced the selection of Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York as recipient of the Laetare Medal, this because of his pro-choice positions.
Cardinal Cahal Daly, primate of Ireland at the time, was scheduled to receive an honorary degree but canceled his appearance following a barrage of criticism from Irish-American groups who accused him of having a lackluster record on confronting anti-Catholic discrimination in Northern Ireland.
Supporters of Joe Doherty also protested during that 1992 event, some carrying signs reading “Bush: No Friend of the Real Fighting Irish.”