National Catholic Register


‘Prestige Over Truth’

Bishop Criticizes Notre Dame’s Obama Honors



April 5-11, 2009 Issue | Posted 3/27/09 at 12:06 PM


SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The University of Notre Dame’s selection of President Obama as its commencement speaker has sparked outrage from Catholics who object to the president’s abortion policies.

The university, long considered the crown jewel of American Catholic higher education, is defending the choice — and will not rescind the invitation. The university plans to award an honorary Doctor of Laws degree to the president and allow him to give a speech.

“We have invited the president, and he’s honored us by accepting,” the university’s president, Father John Jenkins, told The Observer, a campus newspaper. He called President Obama an “inspiring leader.”

Father Jenkins, a member of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, did not inform his bishop, John D’Arcy of Ft. Wayne-South Bend, Ind., of either the invitation or the president’s acceptance until March 20, shortly before the White House announced the news.

In a public statement, Bishop D’Arcy pointed out that Obama has “recently reaffirmed, and has now placed in public policy, his long-stated unwillingness to hold human life as sacred. 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.”

By making this decision, Bishop D’Arcy suggested, the university is choosing “prestige over truth.”

In response, the bishop will not be attending this year’s graduation, which would have been his 25th Notre Dame commencement as bishop, saying, “I wish no disrespect to our president. I pray for him and wish him well. I have always revered the office of the presidency. But a bishop must teach the Catholic faith ‘in season and out of season,’ and he teaches not only by his words — but by his actions. My decision is not an attack on anyone, but is in defense of the truth about human life.”

In his first two months in office, Obama has reversed the Mexico City Policy, which prohibited overseas funding of abortion, and overturned the ban on federal funding of embryo-killing stem-cell research. There is continued concern about his support for the Freedom of Choice Act, which would eliminate any state restrictions on abortion, and fears that he will reverse the conscience protections that allow Catholic hospitals and medical professionals to refuse to perform immoral medical procedures. He has also made a number of pro-abortion appointments to cabinet and judicial positions.

Students’ Choice?

The choice of speaker might be said to reflect the opinion of the majority of the Notre Dame student body, 52.6% of whom voted for Obama in a mock election. Among all voters, 41.5% chose the economy as their most important issue.

But a coalition of 11 student groups, including three at the law school, issued a statement March 25 expressing the “deepest opposition” to the appearance.

The statement noted the objection to President Obama’s “hostility to the Catholic Church’s teachings on the sanctity of human life at its earliest stages.”

The statement cited “Catholics in Political Life,” the 2004 document issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. That document says: “The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.”

President Obama’s appearance was announced the same week that Pope Benedict XVI, speaking in Africa, referred to the suppression of “nascent human life” as “today’s gravest injustice.”

Last year, the Holy Father told Catholic university administrators, including Father Jenkins, who met with him at The Catholic University of America: “Teachers and administrators, whether in universities or schools, have the duty and privilege to ensure that students receive instruction in Catholic doctrine and practice. This requires that public witness to the way of Christ, as found in the Gospel and upheld by the Church’s magisterium, shapes all aspects of an institution’s life, both inside and outside the classroom. Divergence from this vision weakens Catholic identity and, far from advancing freedom, inevitably leads to confusion, whether moral, intellectual or spiritual.”

The response from Catholics both at Notre Dame and around the country was swift and overwhelmingly negative. It took less than a week for a petition launched by the Cardinal Newman Society at to collect (by the Register’s press time) more than 165,000 signatures calling upon the university to rescind the invitation.

Kathleen Donahue, a junior in philosophy and political science and editor of two campus publications, said she is “embarrassed that the self-proclaimed best Catholic university in the world is hosting the most anti-life president in American history.”

“The Virgin Mother sits as a beacon of Catholicity on top of the golden dome,” she said, “but this does not mean that those beneath it respect her wishes.”

In defending the decision in The Observer, Father Jenkins noted that “presidents from both parties have come to Notre Dame for decades to speak to graduates about our nation and our world. They’ve given important addresses on international affairs, human rights, service, and we’re delighted that President Obama is continuing that tradition.”

Presidents George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, John F. Kennedy and Dwight D. Eisenhower have all spoken at commencement. Nine presidents have also received honorary degrees. But none of them supported the radical anti-life measures that are a hallmark of Obama’s political career. President Bill Clinton, the second most pro-abortion president after Obama, was briefly scheduled to speak at Notre Dame, but then had to decline.

“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, including abortion and embryonic stem-cell research,” Father Jenkins said in The Observer. “We are not ignoring the critical issue of the protection of life. On the contrary, we invited him because we care so much about those issues, and we hope … for this to be the basis of an engagement with him. You cannot change the world if you shun the people you want to persuade, and if you cannot persuade them … show respect for them and listen to them.”

Ralph McInerny

Notre Dame’s Right to Life president, Mary Daly, said it should be an honor to have the president speak at her school — but said that his positions made it an “acute disappointment.”

“This president espouses and defends many political ideals that are fundamentally in tension with and in opposition to what lies at the foundation of this university,” Daly said. “It is a serious conflict of interest and failure to live up to its Catholic obligation for Notre Dame to allow Obama to speak on campus in the [context] of the graduation ceremonies.”

Brian Diamond, class of 1979 and parent of two Notre Dame students, has conflicted views on the invitation.

“I sent my children to Notre Dame in large part to enable them to work through issues that Catholics must face in the world at large. My own experiences at Notre Dame helped me to start to work through what it means to be a Catholic in a secular nation,” he said. “Abortion, stem-cell research and other life-related issues are some of the most important that these graduates may face. This debate can have a silver lining in helping educate these students on what it means to be a Catholic.”

Ralph McInerny, the respected author and professor of philosophy who retires this summer after a distinguished 54-year career at Notre Dame, weighed in on the matter on The Catholic Thing webzine. He writes that the invitation tells the nation “that the teaching of the Catholic Church on this fundamental matter can be ignored. Lip service may be paid to the teaching on abortion, but it is no impediment to upward mobility, to the truly vulgar lust to be welcomed into secular society, whether on the part of individuals or institutions.”

He concluded by stating that “Notre Dame has forfeited its right to call itself a Catholic university.”

Thomas L. McDonald writes

from Medford, New Jersey.