WASHINGTON — Pro-life advocates said the University of Notre Dame's recent invitation to President Barack Obama to speak on campus is a chance to participate in public discourse, unlike the school’s welcoming of Obama as commencement speaker in 2009.

One is a scandal, and the other is entirely appropriate,” said Eric Scheidler, executive director of the Pro-Life Action League.

In a recent press release, Notre Dame explained that it has invited both Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to speak at the school during the campaign in order to “provide the campus community a firsthand impression of the contenders and their messages.”

It noted that the university was continuing a 60-year-long tradition in offering Notre Dame as a “forum for serious political discussion” by the presidential candidates.

The invitation drew some concern from those who feared it would be a repeat of the university’s 2009 decision to invite Obama as the commencement speaker and award him an honorary degree. Numerous bishops spoke out against the decision, and a petition protesting it drew more than 100,000 signatures, pointing to the president’s adamant support for abortion without limits.

Obama has also recently announced support for redefining marriage to include same-sex couples. In addition, his administration has come under fire for issuing a mandate that requires employers to offer health-insurance plans covering contraception, sterilization and early abortion drugs.

Notre Dame has joined more than 80 other schools, dioceses, charitable organizations and private businesses in filing lawsuits over the mandate, arguing that it violates their constitutionally protected right to religious freedom.

Scheidler, who led hundreds of pro-lifers in protesting Obama’s commencement speech at Notre Dame, believes that the current invitation is an “entirely different kind of situation than what we saw in 2009.”

In that situation, Obama was presented as “a fitting voice to speak to students about their futures,” while, in reality, his adamant support for abortion makes him unfit to do so, Scheidler told Catholic News Agency. 

Conferring an honorary degree was “totally outrageous and scandalous from a Catholic perspective,” he added.

The “essential difference” in this situation, Scheidler explained, is that the president is not being given an honor in being asked to speak about his political positions in an election year.

Rather, Notre Dame is making a claim, on behalf of the Catholic faith, to “a vital place at the table of public discourse,” he said.


Engaging the Culture

Scheidler argued that withdrawing from public discussion of important issues because one or more candidates oppose Church teaching is “precisely the wrong response.”

He suggested that Obama would love for Catholics to refuse to have any engagement with the pro-abortion culture.

In fact, he said, the problem with the contraception mandate is that it is “driving Catholics out of the public square,” and the faithful should not willingly cooperate by removing themselves from public debate. Having filed a lawsuit against the administration and its mandate, the university has made it clear where it stands on the subject, he said, and it would be very difficult to read the invitation as an endorsement.

The current situation is “plainly” different from 2009, agreed William Dempsey, founding president and chairman of Project Sycamore, a group of Notre Dame alumni concerned about “patterns of secularization persisting on campus.”

“They’re not conferring an honorary degree on Obama this time,” he told CNA, and they are not presenting Obama as someone to emulate.

While Project Sycamore as an organization does not have an official position on the matter, Dempsey said that he believes it is generally good for Catholic universities to be part of the public debate, inviting speakers with differing views as long as they are not being honored or given a platform to oppose Church teaching.

When deciding on speakers, it is important to adhere to the bishops’ policies, he explained. Beyond this, each individual case must be “decided with prudence.”

In this case, Dempsey said, the invitation does “raise some questions as to whether it is prudent and wise” to offer an invitation to Obama when the school is “locked in litigation” with his administration over the HHS mandate.

He cautioned that consideration must be given to what message will be conveyed by inviting someone who is a “significant adversary” in matters of fundamental religious liberty.

In addition, he noted, if Obama accepts the invitation this late in the campaign, it will only be because he “thinks it will advance his political stature in this election,” and the university may want to consider the possibility that it may be aiding the president in his bid for re-election.

Still, Dempsey said, it would be hard to read the invitation as an endorsement, given the similar invitation granted to Romney, and the prudential considerations at play in this instance are not the same as the more fundamental concerns raised in 2009.

He said, “This is quite different.”