University of Notre Dame refuses to cancel invitation in spite of strong criticism from bishops
BY STAFF REPORTER
A CATHOLIC university in America has stood firm over its decision to honour President Barack Obama in spite of blistering criticism from bishops and an online petition signed by almost a quarter of a million protestors.
The University of Notre Dame in Indiana, run by the Congregation of Holy Cross, announced two weeks ago that it had invited President Obama to speak at its graduation ceremony and that he would receive an honorary degree.
Fr John Jenkins, president of the university, said the invitation “should not be taken as condoning or endorsing [Mr Obama’s] positions on specific issues regarding the protection of human life, including abortion and embryonic stem-cell research”. He added: “We see his visit as a basis for further positive engagement.” But his comments did not dampen criticism from Catholic bishops and thousands of lay Catholics.
One Texan prelate called it a “public act of disobedience” to America’s bishops since it defied their guidance that Catholic institutions should avoiding honouring people who oppose fundamental Catholic principles.
The local Indiana bishop said he would not attend the graduation ceremony in protest. He said it would be the only time he had missed the ceremony in 25 years. Bishop John D’Arcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, 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. My decision is not an attack on anyone, but is in defence of the truth about human life.” The bishop said Notre Dame’s choice of Mr Obama as its commencement speaker put “prestige over truth”. Along with two other bishops from Texas he cited a 2004 statement by the American bishops’ conference which said: “Catholic institutions should not honour those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honours or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.” Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, one of America’s most senior prelates, said he found the invitation “very disappointing”.
He said: “Though I understand the desire by a university to have the prestige of a commencement address by the President of the United States, the fundamental moral issue of the inestimable worth of the human person from conception to natural death is a principle that soaks all our lives as Catholics, and all our efforts at formation, especially education at Catholic places of higher learning. “This [invitation] is still providing a platform and an award for a public figure who has been candid on his proabortion views. Particularly troubling is the honorary law degree since it recognises that the person is a ‘teacher’, in this case of the law. I think that this decision requires a charitable but vigorous critique.” Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix, Texas, called the invitation “a public act of disobedience” to the American bishops. In a letter to the university’s president, he added: “I pray that you come to see the grave mistake of your decision, and the way that it undercuts the Church’s proclamation of the Gospel of Life in our day.” Bishop Gregory Aymond of Austin, Texas, said he felt “great disappointment and sadness” at the invitation. He said Notre Dame University clearly “does not live up to its Catholic identity”.
A petition protesting against Obama’s invitation had gathered 220,000 signatures by Monday night. The petition, organised by the Cardinal Newman Society, a group that campaigns to strengthen the Catholic identity of America’s Catholic colleges and universities, described the invitation as an “outrage and a scandal”. It said: “This nation has many thousands of accomplished leaders in the Catholic Church, in business, in law, in education, in politics, in medicine, in social services and in many other fields who would be far more appropriate choices to receive such an honour.” The controversy has also split the university’s teaching staff, with one philosophy professor criticising the decision in a column for the website Catholic Thing.
Prof Ralph McInerny wrote: “By inviting Barack Obama as commencement speaker, Notre Dame is telling the nation that the teaching of the Catholic Church on this fundamental matter [of abortion] can be ignored.
“For one whose 54-year career as a member of the Notre Dame faculty is coming to an end this June, it is a bitter thing to reflect on.” Since coming into office President Obama has overturned the Mexico City policy which stopped government funds from being used to promote abortion overseas. He has also dedicated funds for the harvesting of embryonic stem cells for research.
He will be the ninth American president to receive an honorary degree from Notre Dame and the sixth to be a commencement speaker. In 2001 President George W Bush addressed the graduating class about the importance of faith-based organisations.
Fr Jenkins, the president of the university, said: “We will honour Mr Obama as an inspiring leader who faces many challenges – the economy, two wars, and health care, immigration and education reform – and is addressing them with intelligence, courage and honesty.”