CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. — Some 4,400 undergraduate and graduate students received degrees from Boston College on a balmy Monday, while a group of pro-lifers peacefully protested the Catholic university’s choice of Irish Prime Minster Enda Kenny as commencement speaker.

The protesters, who numbered about 60, gathered just off campus with prayers, signs, banners, bag pipes, drums and words to voice their opinion prior to May 20 commencement exercises in Alumni Stadium.

“Ireland is literally at the threshold of something terrible if Enda Kenny and his government do not rescind [the government’s plan to allow abortion] — if this law is enacted, we’re going down the wrong road,” said John Byrne, who had come from Rockaway, N.J., that morning.

“We plea and implore you to abandon your efforts to introduce abortion into Ireland,” added Byrne, who is a dual citizen of the United States and Ireland.

Kenny has drawn fire from pro-lifers from both sides of the Atlantic for his promotion of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill in Ireland, which, if passed, would “make the direct and intentional killing of unborn children lawful in Ireland,” as stated by the Catholic bishops of Ireland.

The prime minister outlined the government’s position on the bill with a speech given on May 1.

The text of the bill would allow abortion to protect the life of the mother from “self-destruction” or suicide.

“Ireland is facing its Roe v. Wade moment in the next few months,” said Kristan Hawkins of Students for Life. She noted that Planned Parenthood had commended the choice of the commencement speaker.

The protest also included representatives from Live Action, the Catholic Action League, the Ancient Order of Hibernians and family members of 2013 Boston College graduates.

During his generally well-received and wide-referencing speech to graduates, Kenny did not address the controversy, but he spoke to reporters briefly before leaving campus.


Cardinal O’Malley’s Decision

Boston College, a Jesuit university, has received criticism for not rescinding its invitation to Kenny and for granting him an honorary doctor of laws degree.

The invitation was made a year ago, prior to Kenny’s plan to introduce abortion legislation.

The situation escalated on May 10, when Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston,  announced he would not be attending the ceremony. He had been scheduled to give the Benediction.

“It is my ardent hope that Boston College will work to redress the confusion, disappointment and harm caused by not adhering to the bishops’ directives,” said Cardinal O’Malley, referring to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ instructions that Catholic institutions must not honor those who have views in conflict with Catholic teaching.

Boston College spokesman Jack Dunn issued a statement before the commencement that acknowledged the cardinal’s decision and explained the college’s course of action.

“As a Catholic institution, Boston College supports the Church’s commitment to the life of the unborn. Prime Minister Kenny has encouraged individuals to read the proposed bill and his position statement, which reaffirms the constitutional prohibition on abortion in Ireland and attempts to clarify and regulate Ireland’s response to the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights.”

“We respect Cardinal O’Malley and regret that he will not be in attendance. However, in light of the prime minister’s assurances, we are proceeding with our commencement plans,” the statement read.


Calls for Dialogue

Peter and LuLu Daly from St. Paul, Minn., attended both the protest and commencement exercises. Their son Patrick received a bachelor’s degree in marketing.

Peter Daly said they were there first to honor their son, but also to stand up for the sanctity of life.

“As you know, good players adjust, and Boston College should have adjusted,” said Daly. “I think the course of action should have been — they did not need to retract their invitation — but they should not give him an honorary degree, due to his position on abortion.”

Daly also suggested Boston College should have asked Kenny to participate in a dialogue.

In an interview with the Register, spokesman Dunn said that last year’s invitation to Kenny was made to “affirm Boston College’s history and heritage” and noted that the college was founded by an Irish Jesuit in 1863 for the sons of Irish immigrants.

With regard to the honorary degree, Dunn said it has been the tradition of the college to confirm the degree for 138 years to its commencement speaker, and the college decided to continue that tradition due to Kenny’s assurances on the bill.

“The idea of providing a forum for elected officials to discuss how important the life issue is to Catholic institutions and to the Catholic Church as a whole is something that Boston College would welcome,” said Dunn in response to Daly’s idea, noting they were attempting this in their “Church in the 21st Century” initiative.

He also said the college would be willing to have Kenny back for such a forum.

Nathaniel Sanders, 21, who graduated with degrees in philosophy and theology, said he could understand both sides of the decision and acknowledged the connection of the college to its Irish roots.

“But, on the other hand, I don’t think the school should be honoring a politician who has proposed the policies he had,” said Sanders.

He also commented on Cardinal O’Malley’s absence.

“For the student body, it is disappointing not to have the cardinal at our graduation. I wish he was there. But I totally understand where he is coming from,” Sanders added.


Criticizing Kenny

Kenny was asked for his reaction by an Irish reporter who mentioned that protesters had called him the “No. 1 supporter of abortion in Ireland.”

He responded, “Well, I think I’ve made my position very clear on this; as the head of government, I have a duty to stay with the Constitution, which — as I’ve pointed out on many occasions — belongs to the people.”

According to Kenny, his government is only clarifying the existing constitutional restrictions on abortion in Ireland, not changing them.

In their statement on the bill, the Irish bishops rejected that claim. “The bill as outlined represents a dramatic and morally unacceptable change to Irish law and is unnecessary to ensure that women receive the lifesaving treatment they need during pregnancy,” the bishops said in a May 3 statement.

Kate Bryan of the pro-life group Live Action lived in Ireland, where she studied public affairs and political communication, along with working with Irish pro-lifers. She spoke at the protest and later commented on an audio recording of Kenny’s comments.

“The people voted to uphold the constitutional protection of the unborn twice, but now the government is overriding the people’s vote,” she said via email. “The Irish government won’t even give the people a referendum and is forcing this legislation upon them, as if they have no rights/say.”

She also noted that Kenny had made a “pro-life promise” in 2011 to “never legislate on abortion.”

“They will not be saving lives through legalizing abortion; they will only be taking lives,” said Bryan. “Abortion never saves women’s lives; it only takes a child’s.”

Register correspondent Justin Bell writes from the Boston area.