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Legatus Magazine

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Sabrina Arena Ferrisi | author
Sep 01, 2009
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The Notre Dame moment

What honoring President Obama means for Catholic higher education in America . . .

President Obama receives honors from Notre Dame on May 17

President Obama receives honors from Notre Dame on May 17

Faithful Catholics were almost universally outraged when President Barack Obama received an honorary degree from Notre Dame University last spring. Catholic college and university leaders across the country watched closely as the event put a spotlight on the increasingly problematic consequences for Catholic schools honoring pro-abortion politicians.

“This was the perfect storm,” said Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, an organization committed to renewing and strengthening Catholic identity at America’s Catholic colleges and universities.

“The most notable Catholic university in the country invites the high-profile president of the U.S. who had just taken some very disturbing actions with the federal funding of stem-cell research and abortion overseas,” he said.

Catholic identity

Catholics were initially angered by Notre Dame’s invitation to have Obama speak at its May 17 commencement. But discontent turned to outrage when they learned that the university would also award the president an honorary doctorate of laws.

Notre Dame president Fr. John Jenkins said the honor didn’t mean the university endorsed all of Obama’s positions. Yet critics questioned whether the same award would have been given to someone who endorsed slavery, supported racial segregation or practiced polygamy.

“There was great disappointment in Notre Dame for failing to act in conformity with its Catholic identity,” Reilly said.

Legatus member Timothy O’Donnell, president of Christendom College, agreed.

“It’s not that people should only focus on one issue,” he said. “But when a person is opposed to a fundamental Catholic teaching, you don’t invite that person if that college is trying to strengthen its Catholic identity.”

Obama’s Notre Dame moment has led some Catholic college leaders to reflect on their identity and where they want to go. “Generally, President Obama’s speech brought a heightened sense of importance to the Catholic identity of our institutions,” said Daniel Elsener, president of Marian University and member of Legatus’ Indianapolis Chapter.

“It’s clear that the Church does not want its institutions used as a platform for politicians to mislead or confuse the faithful,” he said. “The importance the Church places on key matters of faith — such as the enviable responsibility of leaders to protect life, especially the most innocent and vulnerable — must be clearly articulated and supported.”

Bishops’ role

Bishop John D’Arcy, whose diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend encompasses Notre Dame, vehemently opposed the Obama invitation, but the university’s leadership ignored him.

A total of 83 bishops —including five cardinals — opposed to Notre Dame’s decision to honor Obama. Though the university refused to budge, the bishops’ combined voice brought the issue to every kitchen table in the country.

Reilly noted that the faithful rallied behind the bishops with an unprecedented 367,000 people signing a petition protesting the Notre Dame invitation.

“The bishops are on record as finding this offensive,” he said. “They have stepped up.”

The bishops pointed out that Notre Dame was in direct violation of their 2004 document Catholics in Political Life which says, “Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.”

The left-leaning Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU) — which represents 245 Catholic colleges and universities — echoed Notre Dame’s talking point that “the bishops’ document is unclear.”

“The 2004 statement was not directed at Catholic colleges,” ACCU president Richard Yanikoski told Legatus Magazine. “It was more concerned with whether or not a pro-abortion politician should receive communion. Catholic education is not explicitly mentioned.”

Yanikoski said the ACCU is currently working with the bishops’ education committee to revise the document. But Reilly said the ACCU wants to scuttle the guidelines.

O’Donnell says that although the policy is not perfect, Catholic colleges are still free to invite speakers who disagree with Church teachings. However, colleges may not honor such speakers.

Some bishops are taking measures a step further by enacting stronger diocesan policies. Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, Pa., enacted such a policy in his diocese in 1997. Catholic facilities cannot invite or give an award to a politician whose voting record is against Church teaching.

“When Hillary Clinton was honored at Mercy Hearst College last year during graduation, I objected strongly to her being invited,” said Bishop Trautman. “I declined to attend the graduation last year. This year we built bridges with the college and I attended.”

When a Catholic college invites pro-abortion politicians year after year, he said, local bishops should take action and question the college’s Catholic identity.

“Bishops have the authority to take away the title of ‘Catholic’ from a college,” he said. “To my knowledge it has never been done thus far.”

Overall, analysts say, the Notre Dame episode was a net positive for the Church.

“We’ve seen a real change in the conversation about Catholic higher education,” Reilly said. “Fifteen years ago it was difficult to talk about these kinds of problems. Now it’s conventional wisdom. It has brought U.S. bishops toward real action to correct real abuses. Notre Dame will be viewed as a watershed moment towards the strengthening of Catholic education.”

Sabrina Arena Ferrisi is a Legatus Magazine staff writer.

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On that day …

Complaints began to flood Fr. John Jenkins’ office within hours of his March 20 announcement that President Obama would be this year’s commencement speaker. The national outcry continued until graduation day.

Obama told the 12,000-member audience at the May 17 commencement that in the abortion debate, “on some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable.” Although Obama pledged in the speech “to reduce abortions,” his policies are having the opposite effect.

Across campus, Priests for Life’s Fr. Frank Pavone offered an “alternate commencement” at the invitation of pro-life graduating students. Outside the university, police arrested at least 27 of the approximately 300 protestors.

—Ferrisi

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