- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 17, 2009

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Engaging the culture war directly at the University of Notre Dame, President Obama made a plea for both sides to talk to each other on abortion and other fiery debates with “open hearts, open minds, fair-minded words.”

Mr. Obama received a raucously enthusiastic greeting from Notre Dame graduates inside the university’s arena even as protestors outside — and a few inside — vocally objected to his pro-choice views, which stand in contrast with Catholic Church teaching.

Thanking the university for its greeting, Mr. Obama 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,” said Mr. Obama.

His 31-minute speech was interrupted early on by a man shouting “abortion is murder,” but the student body shouted the man down, chanting Mr. Obama’s campaign slogan, “Yes we can.”

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 will end their contributions, pro-life leaders have repeatedly been arrested during May as they protested Mr. Obama’s speech, and a former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, Mary Ann Glendon, declined to be awarded Notre Dame’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.”

With the exception of the several interruptions to his speech, Mr. Obama missed most of the protests on campus. His motorcade came in a side entrance to the campus.

But as he looked out over the graduates directly in front of him in the Joyce Athletic and Convocation Center, within his eyeshot would have been the mortarboard hats of perhaps a dozen students featuring images of a yellow cross with yellow infants’ feet on either side, put on 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 elaborate models on their mortarboards of buildings such as the Washington Monument, the 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 and an excerpt from 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 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 — that’s when we discover at least the possibility of common ground,” Mr. Obama said.

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 their 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 Book of 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.

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