SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Engaging the culture war directly, President Obama made a plea Sunday at the University of Notre Dame for both sides to talk to each other with “open hearts, open minds, fair-minded words” on abortion and other fiery issues.
Mr. Obama received a raucously enthusiastic greeting from graduates of America’s leading Roman Catholic university even as protesters outside - and a few inside - vocally objected to his pro-choice views, which stand in contrast with Catholic teaching.
Thanking the university for extending the invitation and for giving him an honorary degree, the president said there may never be common ground on tough issues, but said Americans must work to get beyond that.
“The fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable. Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature,” Mr. Obama said.
His 31-minute speech was interrupted early by a man shouting “abortion is murder,” but the student body shouted the man down, chanting Mr. Obama’s campaign slogan, “Yes, we can.” A few other interruptions followed, but Mr. Obama talked through them.
The university’s invitation to Mr. Obama set off a stark debate among Catholics, with dozens of bishops saying the university had forgotten its Catholic mission by awarding the president an honorary degree.
Some alumni have said they would end their contributions; pro-life leaders been arrested protesting at the university; and a former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, Mary Ann Glendon, declined the school’s prestigious Laetare Medal at this year’s ceremony.
But the university stuck to its invitation, and the school’s president, the Rev. John Jenkins, introduced Mr. Obama by saying that while the focus has been on Notre Dame’s offer, the president deserves praise for accepting it.
“If we want to extend courtesy, respect and love and enter into dialogue, then surely we can start by acknowledging what is honorable in others,” Father Jenkins said. “We welcome President Obama to Notre Dame, and we honor him for the qualities and accomplishments the American people admired in him when they elected him.”
More than 300 pro-life advocates demonstrated at the school’s front gate to protest the Obama honor. South Bend police told the Associated Press that 39 people were arrested Sunday - 37 on trespassing charges and two others on charges of trespassing and resisting arrest.
Bishop John D’Arcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend, whose diocese includes Notre Dame, joined student protesters on the school’s south quadrangle rather than attend the commencement, as has been his annual custom for a quarter-century.
“It’s certainly the place for the bishop to be here. There’s no doubt about that,” said Bishop D’Arcy, who was the first bishop to criticize Notre Dame over the invitation, paving the way for almost 80 others to do so. “All of you here today are heroes, and I’m proud to stand with you.”
Mr. Obama saw some of the protests up close. His limousine on the way from Notre Dame back to South Bend Regional Airport passed several dozen protesters shouting and holding signs, including pictures of fetuses and one that said “Notre Dame spiritually sold out.”
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.
“Through his willingness to engage with those who disagree with him and encourage people of faith to bring their beliefs to the public debate, he is inspiring this nation to heal its divisions of religion, culture, race and politics in the audacious hope for a brighter tomorrow,” the citation said.
Of the other seven honorary degree recipients, only one received a standing ovation. Cindy Parseghian, daughter-in-law of legendary Notre Dame football coach Ara Parseghian, runs a foundation to find a cure for a rare, fatal genetic disorder that has claimed the lives of three of her four children.
Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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