(CNSNew.com) - Many American Catholics, including alumni and students of the University of Notre Dame, are expressing anger and profound disappointment at the school's decision to invite President Obama--who supports abortion on demand and legalized same-sex unions--to be the school's commencement speaker and to award him an honorary doctoral degree in law.
By Tuesday morning, more than 50,000 people had already signed a petition aimed at persuading the president of Notre Dame to rescind the school's offer to Obama.
On Friday afternoon, Notre Dame and the White House announced that the university had invited Obama to be the principal speaker at the university's May 17 commencement exercises. At the same time, the university posted an announcement on its Web site revealing that it would also be awarding Obama an honorary doctorate in law.
“This has done more to divide Catholics than just about anything I’ve seen in recent times,” Bill Donahue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, told CNSNews.com Monday. “It approaches the level of anger that the general public has with these Wall Street people who have been fleecing us and then asking us for bonuses. There is a lot of indignity out there.”
The Cardinal Newman Society, a group dedicated to promoting fidelity to Catholic teachings at Catholic universities in the United States, launched an online petition drive on Saturday, urging people to sign a letter to Fr. John Jenkins, the president of Notre Dame. The petition, drafted in the form of a letter, asks him to rescind the university's invitation and intention to honor Obama.
The letter to Jenkins notes that Obama's positions on abortion and same-sex unions are in direct conflict with Catholic teaching, and that Notre Dame's decision to honor Obama thus runs directly contrary to a declaration by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (U.S.C.C.B.) that Catholic institutions should not honor or provide a platform for politicians who stand in defiance of the church's moral teachings.
"It is an outrage and a scandal that 'Our Lady’s University,' one of the premier Catholic universities in the United States, would bestow such an honor on President Obama given his clear support for policies and laws that directly contradict fundamental Catholic teachings on life and marriage," says the Cardinal Newman Society petition to Fr. Jenkins.
"Whatever may be President Obama’s admirable qualities, this honor comes on the heels of some of the most anti-life actions of any American president, including expanding federal funding for abortions and inviting taxpayer-funded research on stem cells from human embryos," says the petition.
"The honor also comes amid great concern among Catholics nationwide about President Obama’s future impact on American society, the family, and the Catholic Church on issues such as traditional marriage, conscience protections for Catholic doctors and nurses, and expansion of abortion 'rights,'" the petition says.
The petition also directs Fr. Jenkins' attention to a document entitled "Catholics in Political Life" that was approved in June 2004 by the U.S.C.C.B. This document was drafted under the direction of Cardinal Francis George, now the president of the U.S.C.C.B., Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, and then-Bishop Donald Wuerl, who is now the archbishop of Washington, D.C.
The document notes that it has always been Catholic teaching that abortion is "intrinsically evil" and that legalizing it is never justified.
"To make such intrinsically evil actions legal is itself wrong," says the bishops' declaration. "The legal system as such can be said to cooperate in evil when it fails to protect the lives of those who have no protection except the law. In the United States of America, abortion on demand has been made a constitutional right by a decision of the Supreme Court. Failing to protect the lives of innocent and defenseless members of the human race is to sin against justice. Those who formulate law therefore have an obligation in conscience to work toward correcting morally defective laws, lest they be guilty of cooperating in evil and in sinning against the common good."
The bishops' statement goes on to specifically instruct Catholic institutions that they should not honor those who defy the church's fundamental moral principles.
"The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles," says the bishops' statement. "They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions."
As of Monday evening, according to the Cardinal Newman Society's website, more than 31,000 people had signed the petition to Fr. Jenkins asking him to uphold this principle by reversing Notre Dame's decision to honor Obama.
Notre Dame junior Mary Daly, president of the campus Right to Life chapter, said that awarding Obama runs contrary to the university’s Catholic traditions.
“In many ways, the president defends many political and moral ideals that are in opposition with what lies at the foundation of the university,” Daly told CNSNews.com.
“I think that it (Obama’s receiving the degree) has complicated the matter a little bit more because in addition to having him speak we are honoring him with a law degree,” Daly added, “and so in honoring him, in some ways, it can be understood as inclusively approving of a lot of what he stands for.”
Daly said that the president's open support for abortion and embryonic stem-cell research are in clear conflict with the Catholic faith.
She also said that she is “disappointed” that her school, which she said is “one of the most prestigious Catholic universities in the country,” felt the need to give an award to Obama.
William Dempsey, president of the Notre Dame alumni group Project Sycamore, which aims at preserving the university’s Catholic tradition, expressed similar views.
“This is a stunning shock to an enormous number of alumni, it really is," said Dembsey. "Here you have the most pro-abortion president of the United States, and one whose position collides most squarely with the position of the Catholic Church.”
“You talk about giving the enemies of the church a tool here, they are going to play this for all that’s worth,” said Dempsey. “It’s a great thing for Obama and his people. I mean, holy smokes this is just a gift drop right on their lap.”
Both Daly and Dempsey said they see no problem with inviting the president to speak at the university. The problem lies in granting him an honorary degree.
“This is not a question of whether or not the university should invite President Obama to give a talk at the university," said Dempsey. "It has nothing to do with that. This is a question of awarding him the honor of an honorary doctorate of laws degree.”
Randall Terry, a Catholic convert who is the founder of Operation Rescue, was sharply critical of Notre Dame's honoring Obama.
“Would Notre Dame give Herod an award after he authorized the killings of babies in Bethlehem?” Terry asked. “The level of this treachery from Notre Dame cannot be overstated.”
Fr. Jenkins, did not respond to interview requests from CNSNews.com, but he did talk to the Notre Dame Observer, a campus newspaper.
Fr. Jenkins took pains to explain to the student newspaper that his intention was to honor President OBama for something other than his absolute support for abortion on demand. He also said that he intended Obama's appearance at the Notre Dame commencment to be an opportunity for "engagement" with the president on the abortion issue.
"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," Jenkins told the Observer.
"We are not ignoring the critical issue of the protection of life," said Jenkins. "On the contrary, we invited him because we care so much about those issues, and we hope … for this to be the basis of an engagement with him."
"You cannot change the world if you shun the people you want to persuade, and if you cannot persuade them … show respect for them and listen to them," Jenkins told the student newspaper.
At the same time Fr. Jenkins spoke of the pro-abortion president as an "inspiring leader" who has shown "courage and honesty."
President Obama, he told the Observer, is "an inspiring leader who has taken leadership of the country facing many challenges: two wars, a really troubled economy, he has issues with health care, immigration, education reform, and he has addressed those with intelligence, courage and honesty."
Fr. Jenkins also said Notre Dame was honoring President Obama for the positive influence he has had on American race relations.
"I would say that it's a special feature for us that we will hear from the first African American president here at Notre Dame, a person who has spoken eloquently and powerfully about race," Jenkins told the Observer. "Racial prejudice is a deep wound in America and President Obama has been a healer, so we honor him for those reasons."
Notre Dame alumnus Dempsey, however, said that many Catholics would argue that, by awarding Obama a degree, Notre Dame is in breach of the principal expressed in the U.S.C.C.B's 2004 statement on “Catholics in Political Life.”
Dempsey said the award to Obama is "repellant to the Catholic Church.”
He added: “The university will be seen as finding his views (acceptable), although they will say they don’t find his views of abortion acceptable, they are nevertheless honoring him, and that’s the heart of the problem here.”
Dempsey was critical of Fr. Jenkins' argument that Notre Dame would be engaging Obama when he showed up to receive his honorary doctoral degree.
“That is a justification, that is ‘engagement,’which may be appropriate in other circumstances, but obviously there is going to be no engagement with President Obama on abortion issues, on this occasion,” Dempsey told CNSNews.com.
“To say that he is being honored for other matters and not for this and that makes it alright” does not fit the occasion, he said. “The anger among alumni here is intense on this matter.”
The Catholic League’s Bill Donahue, meanwhile, questioned what Jenkins meant by “engagement.”
“That kind of double talk is not going to work, people prefer straight talk,” said Donahue.
A Pro-Obama Catholic
Douglas Kmiec, a former professor at Notre Dame law school and former dean of the Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law who supported Obama for president, said he sees no problem with the award.
“While there are differences in views between the Obama administration and the Catholic Church, there are also similarities… the university cannot isolate itself just because it is Catholic,” Kmiec, who worked for the Obama campaign, told CNSNews.com.
Kmiec said that the Catholic Church and the Obama administration are similar in that they are both doing what they can to help out families in these tough economic times.
“It’s the university’s responsibility as an academic institution to present both sides of the issue,” he added.
Kmiec said the university is “evening the playing field” by its plans to award Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon, the former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican and a conservative, with the Laetare Medal--the highest honor the university can make to American Catholics.
But Bill Donahue said the university is exploiting Glendon, a strong pro-life advocate, by awarding the high honor to her at the same time a pro-abortion advocate is being honored. Dempsey agreed.
“This is a transparent effort to take the curse off the selection of Obama,” Dempsey told CNSNews.com . “I mean (Mary Ann Glendon) deserves the medal in every possible way, but the inference is inescapable that here we are going to give Obama an award, but now we are going to show that we don’t really mean it by giving Mary Ann Glendon the medal.”
Despite all the objections to Notre Dame's decision to invite Obama to be honored at its commencement, Fr. Jenkins said Monday the inivtation will stand.