- The Washington Times - Friday, October 16, 2009

A surprise decision by the University of Notre Dame to send five students to last weekend’s gay rights march in the District has produced fury among alumni still smarting from the Catholic institution’s invitation to President Obama in May.

Five students belonging to the school’s Progressive Student Alliance were given an undetermined amount from the university’s student activities fund - from fees assessed to students - to drive to Washington, bunk with friends and participate in the National Equality March last Sunday. Thousands of participants marched from the White House to the Capitol to support gay rights.

Since the news broke Tuesday in the Observer, the student newspaper, comments and postings about the school’s sponsorship of the trip have ricocheted on Catholic blogs and some gay outlets.

William Dempsey, a retired Arlington lawyer from the school’s Class of 1952 who heads Project Sycamore, an alumni organization with a 10,000-name mailing list, said Notre Dame alumni are “tearing their hair out” over the news.

“We’ve had a torrent of e-mails from alumni that are suffused with dismay, astonishment and sadness,” he said. Notre Dame has “been the icon of American Catholic education for generations. This is like a parent turning on a child unexpectedly.” He has asked the university for an explanation but so far the response has been “unsatisfactory,” he said.

Dennis Brown, spokesman for the university, did not answer questions from The Washington Times about why one of the nation’s pre-eminent Catholic institutions approved the trip, although he did e-mail a brief statement saying the PSA sponsored the journey. And in a short phone conversation, he said the PSA only needed approval from a faculty adviser to spend money on the trip.

PSA President Jackie Emmanuel told the Observer that the school funding was “a wonderful surprise.”

“They haven’t always been supportive of us in the past,” sophomore Joanna Whitfield told the publication. “But we’re thrilled.”

The Roman Catholic Church has taken one of the strictest stands against homosexual acts of any Christian denomination, calling such acts sinful and homosexual desires “disordered.” The church’s stance has been reiterated repeatedly under the present Pope Benedict XVI, during whose reign the Vatican has prohibited any priesthood candidate who has “present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or supports the so-called ‘gay culture’ ” to enroll in seminary.

Last year, the PSA presented a petition with about 3,000 signatures of students, faculty and staff to the office of the school president, the Rev. John I. Jenkins, asking the school to add sexual orientation to its nondiscrimination clause.

Although the school has not done so, it does have a Core Council for Gay and Lesbian Students consisting of eight undergrads, the majority of whom are gay, and four administrators from the school’s student affairs division. Sister Sue Dunn, a Dominican nun who is the council’s co-chairwoman, said her office was not involved in the student trip to the equality march.

The school’s campus ministry office also has an annual retreat for gay students, organizes a “solidarity Sunday” each fall to pray for “increased inclusion of all members of the church” and maintains a room of gay/lesbian reference materials.

Critics of the venerable institution, founded in 1842, were querulous.

“Faithful Catholics will ask whether Notre Dame has learned its lesson from the scandalous commencement ceremony last spring,” said Patrick J. Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society and a 1991 Fordham University graduate. “What university seeking to reassure families of its Catholic identity would pay for students to attack the family and oppose Catholic teachings on marriage?”

Notre Dame encountered a public relations windfall - and a furor - in March when it invited President Obama to be the main speaker at its May 17 commencement ceremony and receive an honorary doctoral degree. Eighty-three bishops protested or criticized the invitation, as did 367,000 individuals who signed a Cardinal Newman Society petition against inviting him.

Fort Wayne-South Bend Bishop John M. D’Arcy boycotted the graduation. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, he said, forbade giving “awards, honors or platforms” to “those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles” in 2004.

Mr. Dempsey said alumni care deeply about the home of the “Fighting Irish” and the direction it’s headed.

“What happens to Notre Dame is crucial in terms of what happens to all religious colleges in the country,” he said. “We wonder if it’s going to turn into another Georgetown,” referring to the more liberal Jesuit-run Georgetown University, founded in 1789.

Notre Dame Law School professor Charles E. Rice, author of the newly published “What Happened to Notre Dame?” critiquing the invitation to Mr. Obama, said the PSA trip has caused “not a ripple on campus.”

Despite the school’s reputation, based on such iconic images as “Touchdown Jesus” and the 1940 film “Knute Rockne: All-American,” its character has changed, he wrote, partly due to the number of Catholic professors dropping from 80 percent in the 1970s to 53 percent now.

“Generally the faculty,” he said Thursday, “are not friendly toward retaining the Catholic character of the school.”

• Julia Duin can be reached at jduin@washingtontimes.com.

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