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Obama's scheduled Notre Dame speech draws criticism

Bishop, antiabortion groups cite president's policy on choice, stem cells in protesting his attendance at Catholic school's graduation ceremony.

March 25, 2009|John McCormick

SOUTH BEND, IND. — President Obama's plan to speak at the University of Notre Dame's commencement ceremony this spring is generating disapproval among some on the Catholic campus and triggering protests by national antiabortion groups.

A bishop whose diocese includes Notre Dame said Tuesday that he would not attend the address because of Obama's support for abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research. Bishop John M. D'Arcy of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend said Obama's recent decision to federally fund embryonic stem cell research factored into his decision.

"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," D'Arcy said in a statement.

"After much prayer, I have decided not to attend the graduation," he said. "I wish no disrespect to our president. I pray for him and wish him well. . . . 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."

D'Arcy cited a statement by the U.S. Catholic bishops in 2004 that said Catholics should not honor those who act in defiance of their fundamental moral principles.

The White House responded this afternoon with a statement.

"Notre Dame is one of the first universities President Obama will visit as president and he is honored to address the graduating class, their families and faculty of a school with such a rich history of fostering the exchange of ideas," spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

"While he is honored to have the support of millions of people of all faiths, including Catholics with their rich tradition of recognizing the dignity of people, he does not govern with the expectation that everyone sees eye to eye with him on every position," Psaki said. "The spirit of debate and healthy disagreement on important issues is part of what he loves about this country."

Others on campus are trying to rally additional opposition.

"In many ways, the president does not have a whole lot in line with the mission of this university, especially in terms of its Catholicism," said Mary Daly, president of the campus Right to Life club. Daly said Obama's views on abortion and stem cell research run counter to Catholic teaching and that he should not be given such a prominent speaking platform. "People look to this university as a leading example of American Catholicism," she said.

Daly's club and others with similar views are in the process of trying to decide how to move their protest forward. National Catholic organizations, meanwhile, are attempting to mobilize opposition to Obama's selection by reaching out to alums of the school and others.

The Cardinal Newman Society, an organization dedicated to the "renewal" of the nation's Catholic colleges and universities, has issued an "urgent alert" on its website. As of midmorning Tuesday, the organization said that more than 60,000 people had signed an online petition to stop the "scandal" at the university.

The Pro-Life Action League is urging supporters to call in protests to university President Rev. John I. Jenkins and ask him to uninvite Obama.

Jenkins issued a statement making clear that he had no plans to rescind the invitation.

"Presidents from both parties have come to Notre Dame for decades to speak to our graduates -- and to our nation and world -- about a wide range of pressing issues, from foreign policy to poverty, from societal transformation to social service," he said.

"We will honor Mr. Obama as an inspiring leader who faces many challenges -- the economy, two wars, and healthcare, immigration and education reform -- and is addressing them with intelligence, courage and honesty.

"It is of special significance that we will hear from our first African American president, a person who has spoken eloquently and movingly about race in this nation. Racial prejudice has been a deep wound in America, and Mr. Obama has been a healer."

Jenkins told the campus newspaper, the Observer, the school is not honoring Obama for his stands on issues, but rather his leadership.

"The invitation of President Obama to be our commencement speaker should in no way be taken as condoning or endorsing his positions on specific issues regarding the protection of life, such as abortion and embryonic stem cell research," he told the paper. "You cannot change the world if you shun the people you want to persuade."

Obama's May 17 speech in South Bend is one of three commencement addresses he is expected to give this spring. He also has agreed to speak at Arizona State University and the U.S. Naval Academy.

As part of his visit, Obama is expected to be awarded an honorary degree, making him the ninth president to receive one from Notre Dame.

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jmccormick@tribune.com

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