Notre Dame Hails Obama

President Obama called for dialogue on abortion — amid a baby’s cries — at the University of Notre Dame commencement May 17. Catholics respond.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The crying baby, it seemed, cut through all the chatter.

Throughout President Obama's speech at Notre Dame's commencement, the sound of a baby crying rang out in the university's cavernous Joyce Center. It was what one might expect to hear at any large gathering and long, drawn-out event — and something taken for granted.

But this instance of a baby crying seemed to be a voice that rang out more clearly than all the debate over the pro-abortion president's appearance at the Catholic university. It punctuated the president's talk about the need for both sides in the abortion debate to be civil and listen to each other.

"We must find a way to live together as one human family," Obama said at the May 17 ceremony. "Moreover, no one person or religion or nation can meet these challenges alone. Our very survival has never required greater cooperation and understanding among all people from all places than at this moment in history."

A handful of hecklers were escorted out during Obama's talk — and once drowned out with a student-led "We are ND" chant.

The crying baby was the only one not asked to leave. This infant seemed to have the last word, reminding listeners of what all the debate was about.

Obama's speech was the culmination of weeks of anticipation since Notre Dame announced in March that it would bestow on him an honorary doctor of laws degree and invite him to give the commencement address.

How would he respond to the controversy embroiling Notre Dame, which led some 80 bishops to criticize the university's president, Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, for the invitation, more than 365,000 signatures on a petition that requested the president be disinvited, and millions of dollars withheld in alumni donations?

Father Jenkins set the stage for redefining the terms of the debate when he said that much had been made of Notre Dame's invitation but little attention had been paid to Obama's decision to accept and to go into a lion's den of Catholic pro-life scrutiny.

Obama came to Notre Dame despite the fact that "we are fully supportive of the Church's teaching on the sanctity of human life," Father Jenkins said. "Others may have avoided this venue for that reason. But President Obama is not one who stops talking to those who differ with him. Mr. President: This is a principle we share."

Obama, it turned out, had little to fear. Welcomed with thunderous applause, the president beamed with pride as Father Jenkins and another university official draped a doctoral stole over his shoulders. And the audience seemed to confer on him something else: a pro-life mantle.

Nowhere was that clearer than in the enthusiastic applause he received when he equated the pro-life credentials of those who seek a cure for debilitating diseases through embryo-killing research with those who oppose such research on moral grounds.

"Those who speak out against stem-cell research may be rooted in admirable conviction about the sacredness of life," Obama said, "but so are the parents of a child with juvenile diabetes who are convinced that their son's or daughter's hardships can be relieved."

Obama overturned President Bush's restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. Now, money from taxpayers can go to scientists who do fatal research on human beings created for the purpose. Obama stopped the Bush preference for funding proven, moral adult stem-cell therapies.

Obama listed that controversy, as well as war and civil rights for practicing homosexuals, among difficult issues that demand dialogue, but he spent the bulk of his talk on the abortion issue.

ND Response

ND Response, a coalition of student groups that opposed the Obama honor, sponsored all-night Eucharistic adoration on the eve of graduation.

A Mass was concelebrated on commencement day by eight priests and attended by about 3,000 supporters, including graduates and some professors. A rally followed with speaker after speaker decrying the invitation. After the rally, more than 800 people gathered at Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto for a prayer vigil and a meditation led by Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life. Almost 40 graduates who decided to forgo the official commencement were present.

Joanna Emilian, a theology and philosophy double major and chairwoman of ND Response's education committee, commented on the speeches in the Joyce Center.

"They kept talking about having dialogue, but commencement is really not the right place to have a dialogue," she said. "But it seemed that as President Obama was speaking that he was talking about being open and respectful to the other side but so very much not really listening to the other side. He was talking about respecting common human dignity, but not really realizing what that means, like we have this common ground but then not seeing the full ramifications of that."

Much reaction to Obama's speech came from off campus. In response to his call for "sensible" conscience legislation, Republican U.S. Reps. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin and Chris Smith of New Jersey called on Obama to forgo rescinding the Bush administration's conscience-protection regulation.

"In addition, we urge you to commit to defending conscience protections in future rulemaking that affects both individual and institutional health-care providers," they wrote in a letter to Obama and announced at a press conference May 19.

Reacting to Obama's speech, Father Pavone noted a "glaring omission."

"While willing to dialogue and to promote adoption, he gave no indication of any willingness to protect the children in the womb," Father Pavone wrote on the Priests for Life website. "And that's the crux of the issue."

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver posted a scathing critique of Notre Dame on his diocesan website, writing that the university has "given the next generation of Catholic leadership all the excuses they need to baptize their personal conveniences and ignore what it really demands to be 'Catholic' in the public square."

Bishop John D'Arcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., the diocese that includes Notre Dame, stayed away from the commencement because of Obama's invitation. Attempts to reach him for comment on Obama's speech were unsuccessful, but the bishop did attend the May 17 pro-life rally. He arrived unexpectedly and gave this explanation: When he saw the devotion of the students at Eucharistic adoration and those praying at the campus grotto, it was "certainly the place of the bishop to be here."

He said that it was his duty to "stand up for life, all the time, everywhere, without exception." Invited to the outdoor stage by Notre Dame Right to Life president Mary Daly, Bishop D'Arcy said he found himself saying in recent weeks that "this was a sad time; there are no winners. But I was wrong." He said he has come to realize that "the heroes are the young people on campus, the students."

Catholic News Service and Register staff contributed to this article.

Thomas Uebbing writes from
South Bend, Indiana.