A former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican has turned down the University of Notre Dame's highest award, citing the school's simultaneous honoring of President Obama and its public justifications for doing so.
Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon informed the university Monday morning that she would not accept the Laetare Medal, whose past recipients have included America's only Catholic president and a woman on the path to sainthood.
Mrs. Glendon said in her note to the university that she "could not help but be dismayed by the news that Notre Dame also planned to award the president an honorary degree," citing a 2004 request from the U.S. bishops that Catholic colleges "should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles," including on abortion. Mr. Obama is pro-choice and has made several moves that pro-lifers denounce.
While the invitation of Mr. Obama to give the commencement address at the May 17 ceremony and receive an honorary law degree merely provided a reason to rewrite her speech rather than refuse the medal outright, Mrs. Glendon said, "the task ... has been complicated by a number of factors," including the university's citing her presence in defense of its invitation to Mr. Obama.
"Then I learned that 'talking points' issued by Notre Dame in response to widespread criticism of its decision included two statements implying that my acceptance speech would somehow balance the event," she said, before going on to note that "commencement, however, is supposed to be a joyous day for the graduates and their families."
"It is not the right place, nor is a brief acceptance speech the right vehicle, for engagement with the very serious problems raised by Notre Dames decision" to honor Mr. Obama, she said.
Both Notre Dame and the White House said they were saddened by Mrs. Glendon's decision, but each said its plans for the commencement would not change, and the university said it would find someone else to accept the Laetare Medal.
A Notre Dame spokeswoman declined to elaborate on a written statement put out by the Rev. John Jenkins, the university's president.
"We are, of course, disappointed that Professor Glendon has made this decision," Father Jenkins said. "It is our intention to award the Laetare Medal to another deserving recipient, and we will make that announcement as soon as possible."
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said he was not aware of Mrs. Glendon's reasoning, but said Mr. Obama "greatly looks forward to delivering the commencement address at Notre Dame."
"I think Notre Dame has a strong record of healthy exchange of differing viewpoints and ideas. The president is glad and fortunate to have supporters of all faiths and looks forward to delivering that commencement address," he continued.
Mrs. Glendon's note to Father Jenkins said she would have no further public comment.
Mrs. Glendon is not the first person to refuse to attend the commencement over Mr. Obama's presence. Bishop John D'Arcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend - the diocese in which the school is located - announced soon after the Obama invitation was made public that he would not attend the commencement, though it's been his custom to attend during his 25 years as bishop.
Nearly 50 Catholic bishops across the country have made some sort of public statement denouncing Notre Dame's invitation, with one even suggesting that Father Jenkins needs to resign for the good of the school and the church.
No American bishop has unequivocally defended Notre Dame in the spat. The highest-profile support the school has received came from the Rev. Charles Currie, president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, and such liberal-leaning Catholic magazines as Commonweal.
Mrs. Glendon's move was applauded by Catholic columnist George Marlin, author of "The American Catholic Voter: 200 Years of Political Impact," who said he was "delighted that Mary Ann Glendon has decided she will not serve as the shill for Notre Dame in their efforts to try to make believe there was a balance in giving her an award and giving the president an honorary doctorate."
Robert Royal, president of the Faith and Reason Institute, said that while he was "happy that another voice has been added to say there are growing problems with this invitation," the situation was "sad" because the Obama invitation, the public furor and the Glendon refusal now make it difficult for the university to award the medal to someone else on three weeks' notice.
Father Jenkins "has already announced he will find someone else to take the medal," Mr. Royal said. "Suppose they can't find somebody. Suppose they have to give it to the South Bend dog catcher? It is hard to think what serious person of substance would be willing to step in."
But Margaret Steinfels, co-director of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture, said that while she was "a fan of Mary Ann Glendon's work," she was "very disappointed" by the refusal, which she predicted would "make things more acrimonious, not less."
"I was a little surprised by her letter. It sounded like she felt she was there to respond to President Obama. I have not seen anything to think why she would think that," said Mrs. Steinfels, a former Commonweal editor who has given the Notre Dame commencement address and received the Laetare Medal, the latter in conjunction with her husband, Peter.
"Believe me, they gave me about 4 minutes to say thank you. I do not think this would have been something where she was expected to engage him publicly," she said.
The Laetare Medal was first awarded in 1883 and was approved by the university's founder, the Rev. Edward Sorin. It honors Catholics "whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the church and enriched the heritage of humanity."
Its past recipients have included activists such as Sister Helen Prejean and actor Martin Sheen; politicians such as President John F. Kennedy and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan; and such authors as Walker Percy and Clare Boothe Luce. One recipient, Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day, has been declared a "servant of God" by the pope, a move along the path to possible canonization.
• Christina Bellantoni contributed to this report.