Notre Dame Set for Obama Showdown
As the May 17 commencement approaches, Notre Dame still plans to honor President Obama — and pro-lifers still plan to protest.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — It’s the controversy that won’t quit, and this weekend the focus will be on the University of Notre Dame.
President Obama is scheduled to speak at commencement and receive an honorary doctorate of law, and he will be met with hundreds of pro-life protesters. But two people will be noticeably absent. Both Mary Ann Glendon, the high-profile Catholic who was set to receive another prestigious award, and the local bishop, John D’Arcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend, will not attend the May 17 commencement because of the main honoree’s support for legal abortion and human embryonic stem-cell research.
Some 60 bishops from around the country have written of their disapproval of the invitation, and more than 350,000 people have signed a petition against the honor to Obama.
One point on which they stand: The 2004 U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ statement “Catholics in Political Life” insists that “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.”
Notre Dame seems unmoved by the protests.
Neither Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president, nor Bishop D’Arcy responded to requests for interviews.
Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, which conducted the petition, commented: “In one respect, this is clearly setting a terrible example for Catholic educators — when a major Catholic university gets away with snubbing the entire bishops’ conference. However, the large outpouring of opposition of Catholics across the country,” as well as the bishops who have protested, “is likely to encourage other Catholic universities to not make the same mistake.”
“We can expect the bishops to be following up on this to prevent scandal in the future,” Reilly continued. “We are certainly hearing from a number of families deciding against sending a son or daughter to Notre Dame. Faithful Catholics are less likely to want to be employed by Notre Dame, unless the university can convince them that [the invitation to Obama] was an anomaly and not reflective of the university’s mission. The best thing that would be reflective of that mission would be if Father Jenkins canceled the invitation. There are many good things happening at Notre Dame, but it is the nature of scandal that a little drop of poison spoils the well.”
Notre Dame is not alone in inviting questionable speakers and honorees to its commencement ceremony this year. Xavier University of Louisiana is hosting pro-abortion Democratic strategist Donna Brazile as its commencement speaker.
In Wilkes-Barre, Pa., King’s College invited U.S. Sen. Robert Casey to speak at its May 17 commencement, leading Scranton, Pa., Bishop Joseph Martino to point out that Casey voted to confirm pro-abortion Kathleen Sebelius as secretary of Health and Human Services.
And Georgetown University in Washington was the site for an award ceremony honoring Catholic pro-abortion Vice President Joe Biden. Legal Momentum, a nonprofit organization that promotes same-sex “marriage,” bestowed the honor, however, not the university itself.
For ProjectSycamore.com, a Notre Dame alumni association, the issue boils down to what it sees as a steep decline in Catholic faculty over the years. How will the Obama invitation affect recruitment of Catholic faculty and students? Will prospective professors and students loyal to the magisterium be turned off? Will this crossroads event accelerate a downward spiral toward secularization, or will others take over the reins, having learned from the current situation, and move the university toward a strong internal Catholic identity?
Bill Dempsey, head of the Sycamore Project, said the event could be a defining moment in the history of Notre Dame and could have wide impact on Catholic higher education. “The question is how the board and the fellows and those in governance will now evaluate the degree to which the university has been secularized, the degree to which Catholic identity over the decades has weakened,” Dempsey said. “The incident is a very visible sign of the exaltation of secular values over Catholic sensibility. The core of the problem is the weakening of Catholic representation on the faculty and its failure to comply with the mission statement, which requires a Catholic majority. There has been a drop from 85% to 53% [of faculty being Catholic]. And when you discount for nominal and dissident Catholics, there is an even lesser number of the committed Catholics that the mission statement requires.”
A Long Spring
Notre Dame announced the invitation March 20. In a March 24 statement, Bishop D’Arcy suggested that Notre Dame “has chosen prestige over truth.” He announced that he would not be attending commencement exercises.
By March 25, an ad hoc coalition of 11 Notre Dame student groups called Notre Dame Response was up and running in opposition to the invitation, issuing press releases and calling for a demonstration. Father Jenkins declined to meet with leaders after they set preconditions for a scheduled meeting.
But there were also student groups that met with Father Jenkins to show support for his decision. According to the South Bend Tribune, on April 24, students representing 23 campus groups handed Father Jenkins a letter endorsing his decision and a petition bearing the signatures of more than 1,000 Notre Dame students and employees who back the Obama invitation.
Father Jenkins was “ecstatic to have the support,” said Briana Miller, a Notre Dame senior who attended the meeting, according to the Tribune. “He was excited to see people who saw beyond one facet of the debate.”
Crowds of protesters gathered at Notre Dame, giving a preview of the demonstrations that might take place this Sunday. On Palm Sunday, 400 gathered under gloomy skies and intermittent light drizzle in front of the administration building crowned with the world-famous gilded statue of Our Lady.
Alfred Freddoso, a philosophy professor, hammered away at the scandalous lapse of right thinking and moral judgment involved in Notre Dame’s inviting Obama to speak. Citing the president’s long pro-abortion record, Freddoso said, “‘This is bad,’ the administrators of the university admit, ‘but it’s not all that bad.’”
Pro-life activist Randall Terry temporarily moved to South Bend and opened an office to anchor his effort to prevent Obama from coming to Notre Dame. His website is StopObamaNotreDame.com.
At an April 9 demonstration called by Terry, Pam Washburn of South Bend held a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe. She was there “because my heart is broken. I am so distressed that Notre Dame, a leading Catholic university in this country, can’t see the truth, will not stand up for it, and won’t care.”
There has been an ongoing nightly Rosary at the campus’ grotto.
Speaking to WSBT-TV news April 21, Holy Cross Father Theodore Hesburgh, Notre Dame’s president emeritus, said the invitation has “got us into a pretty big mess. We as a great, outstanding Catholic university will give a message to him [Obama], and I think it will be mutually beneficial and the country will be better off for it.”
Bishop D’Arcy is calling for “a peaceful graduation experience.” Joe Scheidler of the Pro-Life Action League plans to demonstrate. A handful of graduates with Notre Dame Alumni for Life are hoping to draw thousands to campus for graduation day not to stage a protest, but for a time of “prayer, presence, pilgrimage and witness.”
During the commencement ceremony, a Notre Dame professor is hoping to lead a Rosary procession back and forth from the Athletic and Convocation Center, where the graduation will take place, and the grotto.
Whatever happens this weekend, it will undoubtedly be looked upon as a defining moment in Catholic higher education.
Thomas Uebbing writes
from South Bend, Indiana.
- May 17-23, 2009