And as Mr. Obama spoke, on the floor of the Joyce Center in front of him, perhaps a dozen graduates had put on the tops of their mortarboard hats an image of a yellow cross with yellow infants’ feet on each side as a silent protest.
Other students put the iconic Obama campaign “O” on their mortarboards, or wrote slogans of support for the president. Keeping with tradition at Notre Dame, the architecture students had on their mortarboards elaborate models of buildings such as the Washington Monument, Leaning Tower of Pisa or the Empire State Building.
Mr. Obama did not shy away from religious imagery in his remarks, and he wore the traditional Notre Dame doctoral gown, with twin images of the school’s coat of arms, which has a cross, a star and an excerpt of the prayer Salve Regina.
The president’s address came as a new poll by Gallup released Friday showed for the first time in the 15 years they have been surveying on the question that a majority of Americans identify themselves as pro-life. He also spoke as someone who had won the presidency in part because he won a majority of Catholic voters.
In the run-up to the speech, the White House had said Mr. Obama would touch on abortion, but not dwell on it. The president spent five minutes of his 31-minute speech on the topic.
“When we open our hearts and our minds to those who may not think like we do or believe what we do - thats when we discover at least the possibility of common ground,” Mr. Obama said.
And he seemed to find plenty with his audience, which gave him a strong ovation when he talked about those who support embryonic stem-cell research because it may help find cures for diseases.
But they also applauded Father Jenkins when he said the Notre Dame community disagrees with Mr. Obama on the sanctity of life and on embryonic stem-cell research, which destroys fertilized embryos, an act the Catholic Church says is killing a person.
In a nod to his hosts, Mr. Obama called for drafting of “a sensible conscience clause” - something Catholic hospitals desire to ensure they will not be forced to offer abortions or other services that violate their religion’s teachings. Mr. Obama earlier this year reversed a rule President Bush issued as he left office that expanded a long-standing conscience-clause provision.
Notre Dame was the second commencement speech in Mr. Obama’s young presidency.
Last week he spoke at Arizona State University, though that school declined to award him an honorary degree, arguing that its degrees were reserved for those who had shown lifetime achievement in their field, a point about which the president made light.
“So far, I’m only one-for-two as president,” Mr. Obama said, joking that Notre Dame’s former president, the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, holds the Guinness World Records title for most honorary degrees, and “is 150 for 150.”
“Father Ted, after the ceremony, maybe you can give me some pointers on how to boost my average.”
Mr. Obama received standing ovations on his entrance, when he accepted his honorary doctoral degree, when he took the stage for his address and when he finished.
The citation for the degree said Mr. Obama earned it because of his historic election and efforts to renew American diplomacy.