Notre Dame refusing to be bullied by anti-Obama campaigners

By staff writers
March 30, 2009

Catholic university president Fr John Jenkins and officials at Notre Dame are standing firmly behind their decision to invite President Obama to deliver their Commencement address in May.

The campaign by Catholic leaders, conservative lobbyists, activists of the religious right and anti-abortion groups to stop President Obama speaking has been described as "nasty" and 'hysterical" by some students, who overwhelmingly back the invitation.

Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, is the USA's most prominent Catholic tertiary educational institution. It has invited Presidents to attend the Commencement Day function for more than 50 years.

Mr Obama, who received millions of votes from Catholics, will also be the ninth incumbent to be awarded an honorary degree by the University and the sixth to be the Commencement speaker.

But because of the President's views and policies on reproductive issues, Bishop John D'Arcy, of the diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, has promised to boycott the ceremony and describes the decision to invite Obama as "shocking".

Bishop D'Arcy was happy to attend a Commencement address by President George W. Bush and backed the war in Iraq even though his own Church pronounced it immoral. So critics say he is being far from consistent.

Cardinal Archbishop of Galveston-Houston, Daniel DiNardo, this weekend became the first prelate to join the campaign by speaking in favour of banning Obama from Notre Dame.

But the university's president, Fr Jenkins, will not be cowed. He described Mr Obama's acceptance of the invitation as "an honour".

Jenkins declared: "It is of special significance that we will hear now 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."

He said the invitation did not imply the school supported all of Obama's positions. "We see his visit as a basis for further positive engagement," he explained.

The university president told the student newspaper: "You cannot change the world if you shun the people you want to persuade."

Pro-life groups from across the USA are threatening to line the streets in demonstrations against the President's visit. But other Catholics have vowed to come out in support.

Billy Lyman, from Glenview, Illinois, said the protests made him embarrassed to be a Catholic. He told the Chicago Tribune: "Both my grandmothers are coming. They don't want to see that on their way into the ceremony. Nobody should be subjected to that on such a happy day. I'm really concerned the day is going to be marred."

Some 97 per cent of seniors who have expressed a view support the invitation. Opposition appears to come mainly from alumni.

The White House said that Notre Dame would be one of the first universities Obama would visit as President and that the school has a history of vigorous debate.

Spokeswoman Jen Psaki commented: "The President does not govern with the expectation that everyone sees eye-to-eye with him on every position. The spirit of debate and healthy disagreement on important issues is part of what he loves about this country."

Fr Jenkins said: "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 added: "We are delighted that President Obama will follow in this long tradition of speaking from Notre Dame on issues of substance and significance."

The mainline Protestant group Faithful America says it is is joining with Catholics United to support Notre Dame and "to show that people of all faiths value dialogue and debate".

Catholics United has launched a petition in support of the University.

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