- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 17, 2009

Pro-life leaders have been arrested in protest, Catholic bishops nationwide have objected and some students have promised a boycott, but for President Obama, speaking at and accepting an honorary degree from the University of Notre Dame on Sunday is just one of what will be a long line of commencement speeches he’ll deliver during his time in the White House.

“This is a special occasion for families to celebrate the conferring of degrees in this ceremony and that the president will understand that’s the most important aspect of the day,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Friday, tamping down expectations for Mr. Obama’s appearance at one of the country’s flagship Catholic universities.

At the center of the controversy is Mr. Obama’s pro-choice position on abortion, which stands in opposition to the Catholic Church’s teaching, and which some bishops and other Catholic leaders said should have disqualified Mr. Obama from being invited to address graduating students and receive an honorary degree.

Mr. Obama will be introduced by the university’s president, the Rev. John I. Jenkins, who extended the invitation to Mr. Obama and has suffered harsh criticism including some calls to resign. The president is expected to speak for 20 minutes.

Mr. Obama will touch on abortion in his address, but will not dwell on it, the White House said.

“The perspective the president brings to this address is as someone who came to Chicago in the 1980s to work in a program that was sponsored by the Catholic Church to help lift neighborhoods that had fallen on hard times as a result of steel plant closings,” Obama adviser David Axelrod told PBS’ “The Newshour With Jim Lehrer.”

Though Mr. Obama defends his pro-choice stance, he has tried to play down the abortion rights side of the equation in favor of his stated commitment to reduce the number of abortions.

His appearance comes as a new Gallup poll says for the first time in the 15 years it has asked the question, a majority of Americans - 51 percent - call themselves pro-life. It’s a marked shift from last year, when 50 percent said they were pro-choice and 44 percent identified themselves as pro-life.

All of this has put a sharp point on Mr. Obama’s appearance at Notre Dame, located in South Bend, Ind.

Graduates of the university have staged campaigns to cut off donations to the school, and pro-life leaders have been staging protests and getting arrested throughout May. On Friday, former Republican presidential hopeful Alan Keyes, a priest who leads a pro-life group and 19 others were arrested after marching onto Notre Dame’s campus, the Associated Press reported.

Some Catholic groups have used their opposition as a way to try to raise funds for their operations.

Last month, Mary Ann Glendon, a former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, declined to accept the prestigious Laetare medal from Notre Dame, which is traditionally given at the commencement ceremony. It is the first time in 120 years that the university won’t be giving out the award.

Dozens of bishops also have signaled their disapproval, including key leaders in the Midwest.

“It is clear that Notre Dame didn’t understand what it means to be Catholic when they issued this invitation,” Cardinal Francis George of Chicago said earlier this year after the White House accepted Notre Dame’s invitation.

Notre Dame Response, a coalition of groups that oppose Mr. Obama’s appearance, is staging a counter-ceremony Sunday for students who are boycotting the commencement.

While some of the protesters who have been arrested at Notre Dame have carried props such as baby dolls covered in mock blood, students both with ND Response and those who plan to attend but protest Mr. Obama’s speech say they will not use graphic images or be disruptive.

The White House said Mr. Obama never gave thought to forgoing the honorary degree as a middle-ground solution.

“The president intends to go to Notre Dame, speak, accept the degree, and come back to the White House,” Mr. Gibbs said.

But it’s clear they have been following the controversy to see how big it becomes. For now, they are convinced it’s more smoke than fire.

“I think there’s one group organizing a boycott and, as best I can understand it, there are 23 groups that have formed in support of the president’s invitation. The valedictorian is supportive of the invitation. Polling - public polling done by Pew - shows a majority of Catholics are in support of the invitation to speak at the commencement at Notre Dame, and that I think I saw a figure that 97 percent of the students are supportive,” Mr. Gibbs said.

The president’s appearance at Notre Dame comes in the middle of a heavy schedule of such addresses.

On Wednesday, Mr. Obama delivered his first commencement address as president, telling students at Arizona State University that they are coming of age in an era when the old measures of success no longer apply.

“Many of you have been taught to chase after the usual brass rings: being on this ‘who’s who’ list or that top 100 list; how much money you make and how big your corner office is; whether you have a fancy enough title or a nice enough car,” he said. “You can take that road - and it may work for some of you. But at this difficult time, let me suggest that such an approach won’t get you where you want to go.”

On Friday, Mr. Obama will speak at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, where he is expected to talk about the need to make sure U.S. military force is used only when necessary, that the troops are ready for those missions, and that they and their families are being treated properly by the government.

Notre Dame says more than 2,900 students will receive degrees Sunday.

Among the seven others receiving honorary degrees along with the president is Myles Brand, president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association and former president of Indiana University; Randall T. Shepard, chief justice of the Indiana Supreme Court; and Cindy Parseghian, daughter-in-law of legendary Notre Dame football coach Ara Parseghian, who set up a foundation in his name to look for a cure to a rare, fatal genetic disorder that struck three of her four children.

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