The Catholic bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., announced Tuesday he will boycott President Barack Obama’s May 17 commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame, joining an estimated 80,000 people who have petitioned the university to rescind its plans.
For the first time in his 25-year tenure as bishop of the region that encompasses the famous Catholic university, Fort Wayne-South Bend Bishop John M. D’Arcy said he will not be on the main stage during the university’s commencement ceremonies because of President Obama’s “long-stated unwillingness to hold human life as sacred.”
“I wish no disrespect to our president, I pray for him and wish him well,” the bishop said in a statement released Tuesday. “I have always revered the office of the presidency. But a bishop must teach the Catholic faith “in season and out of season,” and he teaches not only by his words - but by his actions. My decision is not an attack on anyone, but is in defense of the truth about human life.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2004, he added, specifically forbade giving “awards, honors or platforms” to “those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles.”
University spokesman Dennis Brown said college officials were “not surprised.”
“We’re sorry he’s not going to be in attendance,” he said. “We fully anticipated criticism and support for the announcement and we’ve received both.”
The university’s announcement last Friday that President Obama would be its principal graduation speaker has engaged Catholic activists nationwide. A Web petition against the speech posted on notredamescandal.com - a new site established by the Manassas-based Cardinal Newman Society - had gathered more than 80,000 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon.
“President Obama has lifted abortion restrictions and threatened the conscience protections of Catholic health care workers,” Society President Patrick Reilly said Tuesday. “He is in every sense an enemy of what a Catholic university holds dear.
“I think President Obama has an interest in dividing the church. This speaks well for the Democratic agenda for seeking a larger share of the Catholic vote.”
The campus appears split over the invitation, and several competing Facebook groups on the matter have been set up. Spencer Howard, a senior and president of the school’s College Democrats club, said the vast majority of students want the president to speak.
“Only a very few are passionate about him not coming,” he added. “To have the president speak is a great opportunity.” Senior Mark Weber, who identifies himself as a pro-life Republican, also said protest is muted on campus.
“The student vibe is very positive,” he said. “The university is standing behind [college President the Rev. John I.] Jenkins on this one. The protests are coming from the outside pro-life community.”
Other students opposed to the speech planned a council of war late last night. The students included Mary Daly, a junior who is president of Notre Dame Right To Life. About five to 20 seniors she has informally polled are considering boycotting their graduation.
“The campus is 50-50 on this,” she said. “Many of us recognize it’s a great honor to have the president here but Notre Dame has had a bad reputation lately in slacking on its Catholicism.”
“I personally find it embarrassing the highest-ranked Catholic university in America should invite the most anti-life president in U.S. history,” said Kathleen Donahue, a junior and editor-in-chief of Beyond Politics, a campus-based political science journal. “A lot of students are very, very upset about it. A lot of alumni have called in and want to know what the students are going to do.”
President Obama will also receive an honorary doctorate from the South Bend, Ind., university along with 2,000 undergraduates, 420 master’s degree students and 200 law school graduates. He will be the ninth U.S. president to get such a degree and the sixth to give the commencement address.
Every president since Jimmy Carter - with the exception of Bill Clinton - has given a commencement address at Notre Dame. During the commencement, the university will award its Laetare Medal - given to someone who exemplifies the ideals of the Catholic Church - to former U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican Mary Ann Glendon.
But it was the Obama invitation that brought an avalanche of reaction over the weekend, spurring Father Jenkins - who issued the Obama invitation - to defend himself Sunday to the Observer campus newspaper.
Sophomore Ben Linskey, the co-president of the College Libertarians who wrote a letter to the editor disagreeing with Father Jenkins, said an invitation conveys “tacit” support to the president’s positions.
“As students and Catholics we have a responsibility to critically evaluate our leadership and view government with a healthy dose of skepticism,” he said. “It just does not create a healthy environment at a Catholic university to have any president speaking. It creates division. If it was President Bush, people would be protesting the war and death penalty.”