The University of Notre Dame held its 176th commencement ceremony Sunday, and conspicuously absent was President Biden.
Mr. Biden did not deliver the address to the Notre Dame 2021 graduating class, breaking with recent tradition for newly installed administrations, as the nation’s second Catholic president continues to draw fire for pursuing a staunchly pro-choice policy agenda.
The White House told the Catholic News Agency that the president was invited but had a scheduling conflict, avoiding a brewing uproar over whether the Catholic institution should celebrate Mr. Biden by awarding him an honorary degree, as is customary for commencement speakers.
More than 4,300 “members of the Notre Dame community” and others signed an open letter to the Rev. John I. Jenkins, the university president, asking him not to invite Mr. Biden over his “pro-abortion and anti-religious liberty agenda.”
“He rejects Church teachings on abortion, marriage, sex and gender, and is hostile to religious liberty. He embraces the most pro-abortion and anti-religious liberty public policy program in history,” said the letter. “The case against honoring him is immeasurably stronger than it was against honoring President Obama, an action that alienated countless Catholics and brought upon Notre Dame the harsh criticism of 83 cardinals, archbishops and bishops.”
Mr. Obama gave the commencement address in 2009, four months after his inauguration. Also speaking at graduation ceremonies in their first years in office were President George W. Bush in 2001 and Vice President Mike Pence in 2017.
C.J. Doyle, executive director of the Catholic Action League, said there was “unprecedented opposition to Obama receiving a degree from Notre Dame, so much so that the President of Notre Dame, Father Jenkins, actually walked in the National March for Life in D.C. afterwards.”
“I believe there would have been even more intense outrage if Biden was given a degree,” Mr. Doyle told The Washington Times. “The issue of nominally Catholic politicians who support abortion is, 48 years after Roe, finally reaching critical mass.”
The tradition began with President Jimmy Carter, who delivered the Notre Dame graduation speech shortly after taking office in 1977, followed by President Ronald Reagan, who did so in 1981.
The custom was interrupted by President George H.W. Bush, who spoke at graduation in 1992, not 1989, his first year in the White House. President Bill Clinton did not deliver the commencement address in 1993.
“While Notre Dame has had more presidents serve as commencement speakers than any university other than the military academies, we have not always hosted a president in his first year in office — or at all,” a university spokesperson told CNA.
John F. Kennedy, America’s only other Catholic president, addressed the winter 1950 commencement when a U.S. congressman and received the school’s prestigious Laetare Medal in 1961. But he did not address the university’s graduates as president.
Speaking at Sunday’s ceremony was Jimmy Dunne, a Notre Dame graduate and vice chairman and senior managing principal of Piper Sandler.
Father Jenkins said in January the university was considering inviting Mr. Biden, noting that he spoke in 2016 when he received the Laetare Medal jointly with former House Speaker John A. Boehner.
“No decision has been made, though we, of course, have a long tradition of welcoming U.S. presidents to campus,” he told Crux.
But in their open letter, opponents said that “the university should be free to invite speakers who disagree with Church teachings, but this is beside the point.”
“It has nothing to do with honoring them, which should be governed by the injunction of the nation’s bishops that ‘Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles,’” the letter said.
A Biden cabinet member, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield, gave the commencement address Friday at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, drawing criticism from pro-life advocates over her support for expanded abortion access.
The Catholic Action League called the move “a shameless betrayal of Catholic principles, an explicit violation of church law and a callous insult to faithful, pro-life Catholics.”
Mr. Biden gave his first commencement address as president Wednesday at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut.
Some Catholic bishops have spoken in favor of excluding pro-choice Catholic politicians from taking Communion, an issue expected to be discussed at the national assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which begins June 16.
Mr. Biden, a lifelong Catholic, was refused the sacrament of Communion in 2019 at a church in Florence, South Carolina, with the priest saying in a statement afterward that any “public figure who advocates for abortion places himself or herself outside of Church teaching.”