Obama at Notre Dame: 1 Year Later

BIG MAN ON CAMPUS. Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, and U.S. President Obama applaud during the commencement ceremony at the university in Notre Dame, Ind., in late May 2009. Obama was the commencement speaker and honorary degree recipient.
BIG MAN ON CAMPUS. Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, and U.S. President Obama applaud during the commencement ceremony at the university in Notre Dame, Ind., in late May 2009. Obama was the commencement speaker and honorary degree recipient. (photo: CNS photo/Jason Reed, Reuters)

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Defending the decision last year to invite President Obama to speak at commencement, the University of Notre Dame’s president, Father John Jenkins, spoke of his hopes for a sort of exchange.

“The president’s visit to Notre Dame can help lead to broader engagement on issues of importance to the country and of deep significance to Catholics,” Father Jenkins wrote at the time. “Ultimately, I hope that the conversations and the good will that come from this day will contribute to closer relations between Catholics and public officials who make decisions on matters of human life and human dignity.”

Whether the Obama administration and its policies, particularly those on the life issues, were affected by the president’s experience at Notre Dame is an issue for pundits to debate. But what effect did the event have on ND itself?

The incident divided the Church in America: While some prominent Catholics supported the invitation, 83 bishops publicly criticized it, and 367,000 people signed the Cardinal Newman Society’s online petition against it.

The protests centered around Obama’s radical pro-abortion agenda, of course, and in the wake of the controversy, Father Jenkins moved to make ND more overtly pro-life. On Sept. 16, he announced a Task Force on Supporting the Choice for Life to “consider and recommend to me ways in which the university, informed by Catholic teaching, can support the sanctity of life.” By April 8, Notre Dame adopted an institutional statement recommended by the task force, on the defense of human life: “Consistent with the teaching of the Catholic Church on such issues as abortion, research involving human embryos, euthanasia, the death penalty, and other related life issues, the University of Notre Dame recognizes and upholds the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death.”

Notre Dame also has adopted new principles for the institution’s charitable activity. The university will seek to “direct its contributions to both persons and organizations so that they are not used to support research or activities that conflict with Catholic teachings.”

88 in Limbo

Father Jenkins also announced he would be participating in the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 22, which he did, along with 370 ND students.

While pro-life leaders welcomed the move, they did so in a muted way due to Notre Dame’s unwillingness to recommend to the Saint Joseph County prosecutor, Michael Dvorak, to drop the charges against the “ND 88” who were arrested in the run-up to or on the day of Obama’s speech. Eighty-seven demonstrators arrested for trespassing (there were 88, but one has since died) face a trial and up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine if convicted. They have requested jury trials.

Their lead defense attorney, Thomas Dixon, attempted several times to persuade presiding Judge Jenny Pitts Manier to recuse herself because of her prior rulings in a pro-life free speech case a few years ago and also because of the views of her husband, a former ND professor, who was a known abortion advocate and Obama supporter. On Dec. 3, the judge finally agreed to allow the state appellate court to make that decision. However, on Jan. 6, abruptly, she did recuse herself.

On April 26 the news broke that the new judge Michael P. Scopelitis had lifted the stay of discovery in the case. This permits attorney Dixon to pursue depositions and find out more from Notre Dame officials and the police about the events that led to the arrest of the demonstrators. Dixon will take a deposition from a Notre Dame representative on May 25. He expects that as the process plays out trials will not begin until the fall of 2010 or spring of 2011.

On April 30, Father Jenkins issued a statement about the protest, noting that “the university cannot have one set of rules for causes we oppose, and another more lenient set of rules for causes we support. We have one consistent set of rules for demonstrations on campus — no matter what the cause.” However, this was not reported in the South Bend Tribune until May 2.

But a May 1 Tribune article revealed that Notre Dame has treated others arrested for trespass in the past differently than the ND 88. The homosexual-advocacy group Soulforce said some of their activists were arrested for trespassing at Notre Dame in March 2007 but were never formally charged. Also in March 2007 a Catholic Worker Movement protester was jailed for trespassing during a demonstration against Notre Dame’s ROTC program. He was charged but the next day the charges were dropped, and he was released from jail. This strongly implies that the prosecutor followed a desire communicated by Notre Dame to have the charges dropped.

Regarding the 88 pro-life demonstrators, Notre Dame has consistently maintained that it has no control over or say in the cases. Defense attorneys have consistently pointed out that if Notre Dame asks for the charges to be dropped there is a high likelihood they will be.

Pushback Effect?

In another development, Project Sycamore, a Notre Dame alumni group which monitors and promotes the university’s Catholic identity, announced Dec. 23 that it learned that Father Jenkins and Notre Dame Board chairman Emeritus Donald Keough were no longer board members of the Millennium Promise, an organization with strong pro-abortion and pro-contraception policies, and that they were not standing for reappointment. While Father Jenkins had refrained from participating in those policies, Project Sycamore’s view was that this “did not solve, but rather exacerbated, the problem” because that disclaimer was not made known to the public in the Millennium Project’s fundraising. Thus their board “has the advantages of your membership without the disadvantages of your unsympathetic participation in matters relating to abortion and contraception.”

At Notre Dame, Obama called for finding “common ground” and engaging in respectful dialogue. And while he tried to assure the American people that his party was not trying to sneak abortion into the health-care bill, he expressed no outrage when amendments that would ban it from the bill were defeated. In the end, he signed an executive order that forbids using taxpayer money to pay for abortions.

The “pushback” generated by widespread outcry against the Obama invitation has perhaps made Catholic colleges more gun-shy about honoring individuals who advocate against Catholic fundamental moral principles. The Cardinal Newman Society in its annual commencement season report noted that “recent years have seen a marked decline in these scandals, from 24 in 2006 to just nine in 2010.”

And this year, Notre Dame invited “NBC Nightly News” anchorman Brian Williams to receive an honorary degree and deliver the commencement address.

Father Jenkins has always defended the decision to invite Obama and bestow on him an honorary doctorate of laws. Pro-life activist Joe Scheidler of the Pro-Life Action League had an opportunity to talk to the Holy Cross priest at the March for Life and came away convinced that he had not changed his view about the invitation or the ND 88. In a Dec. 27 Tribuneinterview, when asked if he would invite the president again, in light of the uproar, he replied, “Yes, I would. … For all the controversy, I think it was a successful day.”

Thomas Uebbing writes from South Bend, Indiana.