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Obama invitation puts national spotlight on ND

Aaron Steiner | Sunday, May 10, 2009

Within hours of the May 20 announcement that President Barack Obama would speak at Notre Dame and receive an honorary degree at the May 17 Commencement ceremony, the Cardinal Newman Society launched what they termed a “national Catholic campaign” to protest the invitation, launching a Web site, NotreDameScandal.com, and petition.

At the time, some observers were surprised that a group would go to such lengths as to create a Web site in protest.

Last week, when a sixth Web site protesting the decision was launched, it was old news.

The invitation University President Fr. John Jenkins extended to Obama quickly provoked a response from around the country, one that has not died down in the past five weeks, and isn’t likely to do so in days until Commencement, either.

As of press time, nearly 50 U.S. bishops have made some type of comment about the decision, Fox News has interviewed Notre Dame students on live television twice, numerous Facebook groups have been formed, protests have been held at offices or homes of several Notre Dame Trustees, the White House has made note of the controversy at least three times, countless Notre Dame alumni have contacted the University and pro-life groups have launched several separate protest campaigns.

The controversy has even extended beyond the nation’s borders – ND Response, a student group opposing the decision, earlier reported receiving messages from Europe, Asia and Africa.

One thing is certain: come May 17, the spotlight on Notre Dame will be intense.

Why the big fuss?

University professors say Notre Dame’s role in American Catholicism is a primary factor in the response. Professor Gary Anderson, of the theology department, called Notre Dame the “symbolic center” of Catholicism in the U.S.

“Whether we like it or not, this is the spot where many Americans take their reading of the state of the Catholic Church,” Anderson said.

Rick Garnett, professor of law, said Notre Dame “is the most important Catholic university in the country, and so what happens here is often important … for the Church.”

“It is not surprising that the invitation, and the reaction to it, has drawn so much attention,” he said. Garnett cited two reasons.

“First, Catholics, like Americans generally, were closely divided during the last election,” he said. “Next, the Catholic Church is the most prominent and consistent advocate for the human dignity and rights of unborn children, and President Obama’s positions and views are, in some instances, inconsistent with those rights.”

That inconsistency has led to a large response, he said. Professor of political science Daniel Philpott said the debate shows how many Catholics feel about abortion.

“What the controversy at Notre Dame has revealed is that American Catholics, at least a good swath of them, still care a great deal about the right to life,” he said.

While some argue the controversy should be non-political in nature, politics has taken a role in many arguments against the invitation.

A majority of Catholics supported Obama last November in the general election, giving him 54 percent of the Catholic vote, however pro-life Catholics who oppose the University’s decision cite Obama’s recent actions in office – including overturning the Mexico City Policy and rescinding limits President George W. Bush put in place on funding new embryonic stem cell research – in their reasoning for protests.

“A lot of [Catholics] held their noses when they voted for Obama. This controversy, and what he has done since taking office, has brought those concerns to the fore,” Appleby told the National Post in an April 6 article. “His decision on life issues and the way he has communicated them have been deeply dissatisfying to Catholics who voted for him.”

Philpott agreed.

“There was much talk after the last election about how the Catholic vote had been neutralized, how the life issue had been deferred, diverted, diffuse and diluted. But this was illusory,” he said, noting the response to Obama’s political actions and now the University’s decision as evidence.

The recent reaction to the Obama invitation – seen both here in South Bend and in print, online and broadcast media – has been loudly heard.

In addition to Cardinal Newman Society’s online petition, the Pro-Life Action League, a Chicago-based organization, released a statement the same day as the announcement, asking Jenkins to withdraw the invitation.

Randall Terry, one of the more prominent activists to join the protest, moved to the area May 27 to start an on-the-ground campaign in South Bend.

In the weeks following the announcement, bishops from around the country voiced their opinions. Local Bishop John D’Arcy, whose diocese includes Notre Dame, released a statement March 29 stating that he would not attend the ceremony.

Alumni from around the country have also weighed in, writing to Jenkins, The Observer and commenting in the media.

Those in support of Notre Dame’s decision have sprung into action as well, albeit later and perhaps more quietly than their counterparts.

Earlier this month, Catholics United, an online non-profit organization, launched a petition and Web site – wesupportnotredame.org – in support of the University’s decision and to help combat petitions like the one started by the Cardinal Newman Society, according to Chris Korzen, executive director of Catholics United.

More recently, the American Association of University Presidents added its voice to the discussion, saying that the group “applauds Notre Dame president Rev. John Jenkins for standing firm on the university’s decision to invite President Obama” in an April 23 statement.

Still, protestors say they plan to continue to make their opinions known – a sign that the controversy isn’t dying down yet.

Randall Terry and his supporters, according to his Web site, plans to hold daily protests at the University’s Main gates, at the intersection of Notre Dame Ave. and Angela Blvd.

A more recently organized campaign, notredameprotest.com, is organizing bus transportation for protesters coming to campus on May 17 from Chicago and Detroit.

And Monday, trucks with anti-abortion billboards attached – including graphic images – appeared in South Bend, and the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, a California-based group, says they’ll remain until Commencement.

The back-and-forth between the supporters and opponents of this decision continues to stir create a firestorm of discussion, as the debate over the invitation rages on.

But the heated arguments may not be for naught, Appleby said, depending on how Commencement weekend turns out.

“If it (Commencement) represents the beginning of a serious and sustained debate and discussion of the issues upon which Catholics disagree with the President, then the Commencement controversy may well have been worth the anguish suffered by many who love Notre Dame, both those who did and those who did not support the invitation,” Appleby said.

Professor Alfred Freddoso of the philosophy department, however, painted a bleaker picture about the future of Notre Dame and its standing with the Church.

“The Church can survive and flourish without Notre Dame; it’s really up to Notre Dame to decide whether it wants to be part of the Church,” he said.