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Jenkins: Obama ‘honored’ University by accepting

Jenn Metz | Monday, March 23, 2009

University President Fr. John Jenkins responded to criticism regarding the announcement of President Barack Obama as the 2009 Commencement speaker by clearly making a distinction between honoring the president and supporting his political views.

Jenkins made it clear in an interview with The Observer Sunday the University does not “foresee circumstances” that would cause Notre Dame to rescind the president’s invitation.

“We have invited the president and he’s honored us by accepting,” he said.

The White House and the University announced March 20 the president will speak at the May 17 Commencement ceremony, to take place in the Joyce Center. The Notre Dame appearance will be Obama’s second commencement address as president; he will speak at Arizona State University on May 13 and the United States Naval Academy on May 22.

Notre Dame has a long-standing tradition of inviting the current U.S. president to speak at the University, Jenkins said.

“Presidents from both parties have come to Notre Dame for decades to speak to graduates about our nation and our world. They’ve given important addresses on international affairs, human rights, service, and we’re delighted that President Obama is continuing that tradition,” Jenkins said.

Some members of the Notre Dame community, and the larger national Catholic community have negatively responded to the announcement, launching campaigns to stop the president from visiting the University because of his stances on issues regarding the protection of life.

Jenkins made clear the University is not honoring the president for his stances on these issues, but for his leadership.

“The invitation of President Obama to be our Commencement speaker should in no way be taken as condoning or endorsing his positions on specific issues regarding the protection of life, such as abortion and embryonic stem cell research,” Jenkins said.

These “crucial differences” in positions on the protection of life are not being ignored in extending the invitation to the president, Jenkins said, but rather can be used as a catalyst for dialogue.

“We are not ignoring the critical issue of the protection of life. On the contrary, we invited him because we care so much about those issues, and we hope … for this to be the basis of an engagement with him,” Jenkins said.

“You cannot change the world if you shun the people you want to persuade, and if you cannot persuade them … show respect for them and listen to them,” he said.

President Obama is “an inspiring leader who has taken leadership of the country facing many challenges: two wars, a really troubled economy, he has issues with health care, immigration, education reform, and he has addressed those with intelligence, courage and honesty,” Jenkins said.

Obama’s historic election as the first black president in American history adds to the honor of his acceptance of Notre Dame’s invitation, he said.

“I would say that it’s a special feature for us that we will hear from the first African American president here at Notre Dame, a person who has spoken eloquently and powerfully about race,” he said. “Racial prejudice is a deep wound in America and President Obama has been a healer, so we honor him for those reasons.”

The president will receive an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University when he visits in May. Jenkins said The Office of the President issues honorary degrees, and he “consulted with many people” about the decision.

Response to Catholic community

The Cardinal Newman Society (CNS), a group that describes itself in its mission statement as “dedicated to renewing and strengthening Catholic identity at America’s 224 Catholic colleges and universities,” has launched a Web site, www.NotreDameScandal.com, that includes an online petition to Jenkins that reads: “It is an outrage and a scandal that ‘Our Lady’s University,’ one of the premier Catholic universities in the United States, would bestow such an honor on President Obama given his clear support for policies and laws that directly contradict fundamental Catholic teachings on life and marriage.”

CNS is one of many groups that has begun campaigns to protest the selection of the president as Commencement speaker. Other organizations, like the Pro-Life Action League, have called for Catholics to urge Notre Dame to withdraw the invitation through postings on their Web sites.

CNS has also faxed a letter to Fort Wayne-South Bend Bishop John D’Arcy. D’Arcy has been publically critical of the University in the past, specifically regarding the performance of “The Vagina Monologues” on campus.

Jenkins said he spoke with D’Arcy regarding Obama’s visit to campus in May, but he cannot speculate what the bishop’s response will be.

According to the CNS-organized protest Web site, as of 2 p.m. Sunday, the CNS petition has received over 10,500 signatures.

CNS’ Campus Speaker Monitoring Project, which aims to uphold the United States Conference of Catholic Bishop’s (USCCB) 2004 statement titled “Catholics in Political Life,” reports colleges and universities that host “scandalous commencement speaker and honorees, including advocates of abortion rights, stem-cell research, physician-assisted suicide, homosexual marriage and women’s ordination,” according to its Web site.

The document released by the USCCB, a group whose purpose is “to promote the greater good which the Church offers humankind,” according to its Web site and includes an assembly of the hierarchy of the United States and the U.S. Virgin Islands who exercise certain pastoral functions on behalf of the Christian faithful of the U.S.,states “The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.”

Jenkins said Sunday the critical lines in the statement include that politicians “should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions” and Notre Dame’s invitation is consistent with the 2004 document.

The president’s honorary degree “does not, it is not intended to condone or endorse his position on specific issues regarding life,” Jenkins said. “That’s not what we’re honoring. “

In an April 2008 Wall Street Journal article titled “Catholicism, Inc.,” Jenkins commented on his past encounters with CNS: “The Newman Society has no ecclesiastical standing and no academic standing. For me, it resembles nothing more than a political action committee.”

When asked Sunday, Jenkins said he stands by his position on CNS.

The pope has not released a statement regarding the selection of President Obama as Notre Dame’s Commencement speaker and the University’s Catholic identity; Sunday, Jenkins said does not think the pope will issue such a statement in the future.

The debate surrounding the president’s visit to campus provides “a positive engagement on the issues we care about,” Jenkins said.

“We want to recognize his very real and significant accomplishments and his leadership. At the same time, we want to engage him in the future, and I think this occasion will be a wonderful time to do that,” he said. “I think if he is going to reconsider his views, I think Notre Dame is the best possible place to begin that process.”

The University’s Commencement speaker carries the responsibility of providing graduates with inspiration as they leave Notre Dame, Jenkins said.

“Our graduates are leaving campus at a time of great challenges. We have special expectations for those graduates – what they will do and how they will lead the world,” he said.

Jenkins said he hopes University Commencement speakers instill in graduates “the importance of public service” and “make them aware of the important issues in our world and will inspire them to be leaders and active citizens.”

Past Presidential speakers

Obama will be the sixth U.S. president to be the principal speaker at a Notre Dame Commencement ceremony and the ninth president to receive an honorary degree.

During his 2008 presidential campaign, Obama delivered an address to graduates at Wesleyan University in Connecticut last May, filling in for Sen. Edward Kennedy.

According to a March 20 University press release, the last sitting president to give the Commencement address at Notre Dame was President George W. Bush, who spoke in 2001. In his address, Bush said the nation’s faith-based organizations were central to the war on poverty. It was Bush’s first commencement address after his election to the presidency in 2000.

President George H.W. Bush was the principal Commencement speaker at Notre Dame in 1992.

In May 1981, President Ronald Reagan was the University’s Commencement speaker in his first public appearance after a March 1981 assassination attempt.

President Jimmy Carter spoke to 1977 Notre Dame graduates; his speech was what some call the key foreign policy address of his presidency, according to the release.

President Dwight Eisenhower spoke at Notre Dame in 1960, as the first U.S. president to deliver the Commencement address.

Then-U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy gave the winter Commencement address in 1950; he is the only president to receive the Laetare Medal, Notre Dame’s highest honor, awarded annually to an influential American Catholic.