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The culture wars come to Notre Dame

The controversy over Obama's commencement address has given his critics and abortion foes the chance to take on the popular president over a divisive issue.

May 14, 2009|Robin Abcarian

When University of Notre Dame valedictorian E. Brennan Bollman learned she'd be sharing a stage at Sunday's commencement with President Obama, she was elated.

"I am a strong supporter of President Obama because I think he lives the values of justice and working toward peace," the 22-year-old senior said Tuesday. "President Obama takes a lot of pro-life positions. I don't think that he is strongly pro-abortion."

But others vehemently disagree, and Obama's visit to Notre Dame has set off a fierce debate among Roman Catholics about whether it is appropriate for one of the nation's premier Catholic institutions to host a proponent of legalized abortion and embryonic stem cell research, both of which are contrary to church teachings.

Ten priests, all Notre Dame alumni, wrote an open letter warning that the university had put its "true soul" at risk by welcoming the president.

The controversy has also given Obama's conservative opponents the chance to hammer the popular president on a divisive issue they think he has tried -- successfully so far -- to minimize.

Obama, who will give the commencement address and accept an honorary law doctorate, is a supporter of abortion rights, though he has spoken of the need to reduce unwanted pregnancies. Polls show that a slight but steady majority of Americans thinks abortion should remain legal.

As of Wednesday, 71 Catholic bishops -- including two cardinals -- had denounced the invitation, as have more than 350,000 Catholics who signed an online petition asking Notre Dame to withdraw it. Dueling websites and Facebook groups have sprung up, including one, Notre Dame Response, that urges graduating students to boycott the ceremony.

Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon, a former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican who is opposed to abortion, turned down Notre Dame's most prestigious award, the Laetare Medal, when she learned the university tried to placate critics by reminding them that she was included in the commencement program too.

Familiar names from culture wars past rushed to South Bend, Ind.: Antiabortion stalwart Randall Terry, a newly converted Catholic, temporarily moved his family of six from Washington, D.C., in April and vowed to "make this a political mud pit for Obama." An antiabortion group called the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform hired planes to fly over Notre Dame with banners carrying photos of aborted fetuses.

Conservative evangelical Christians, who think Obama has gotten a pass on the abortion issue, have watched with relish, hoping the conflict damages him politically.

"What the Notre Dame appearance has done is brought into focus the Obama rhetoric and the Obama policy, which, from a pro-life perspective, are as different as night and day," said the Rev. Patrick Mahoney, a Presbyterian who heads the Christian Defense Coalition.

Notre Dame's commencement comes at a time of soul-searching among conservative Catholics perplexed by the level of Catholic support for Obama, said Deal Hudson, director of InsideCatholic.com. In November, Obama won 54% of the Catholic vote.

"You had a kind of raw wound, as it were, and Notre Dame's actions just basically rubbed their face in it," said Hudson, who advised Karl Rove and served as a liaison between former President George W. Bush and conservative Catholics. "I can tell you if they had invited him merely to speak and not honor him, the controversy would not have been as great."

Many political experts think that in at least four states -- including Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan -- Catholics were the swing voters who put Obama in the White House. It is a bloc whose support Obama will continue to need as he pushes his agenda for healthcare reform, ending the war in Iraq and other "social justice" issues that drew many Catholics to his side. (Vice President Joe Biden, who is Catholic, often mentioned his faith during the campaign.)

But Hudson thinks Republicans will ultimately benefit from the dust-up: "Any time the church publicly reaffirms its position on issues like life and marriage, and does so authoritatively, it's going to confirm for people that . . . the kinds of judgments you make about political and public matters should first and foremost be guided by these nonnegotiable teachings."

Pepperdine University law professor Douglas Kmiec, a Catholic Republican who campaigned for Obama, offered a counter view, saying Obama won Catholics over in part because he deftly negotiated the issue of abortion. At Obama's urging, the Democratic platform encouraged the reduction of abortion by providing economic and social assistance to women in need.

"While he didn't support criminalizing abortion," Kmiec said, "he did support addressing the topic in a way that Catholics could find reasonably consistent with the desire not to be morally cooperative with this intrinsic evil."

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