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Catholic groups outraged over Obama selection

Madeline Buckley | Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Several religious and pro-life groups nationwide are expressing outrage and threatening to protest in South Bend after the University announced President Barack Obama will deliver the 2009 Commencement address at Notre Dame’s graduation ceremony May 17.

Assistant Vice President for News and Information Dennis Brown told The Observer a rumor that University switchboards were overwhelmed with callers and had to be shut down Friday night is false – a claim made by a March 20 article on pewsitter.com.

Although many outside groups are protesting University President Fr. John Jenkins’ decision, The Observer reported in an Oct. 8, 2008 article that Obama led the student body with 52.6 percent of the vote in a mock election held by student government, in which 2,692 undergraduates and graduate students voted.

The Cardinal Newman Society (CNS) – a group dedicated to “renewing and strengthening Catholic identity at America’s 224 Catholic colleges and universities,” according its mission statement – launched a Web site, www.notredamescandal.com, that acts as an online petition asking Jenkins to withdraw the invitation for President Obama to speak based on Obama’s pro-choice stance.

The site currently claims over 47,000 signers, as of press time.

David Costanzo, CNS communications director, told The Observer that the Society believes Obama is an inappropriate choice for Commencement speaker because the decision goes against a statement made by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in a 2004 document titled “Catholics in Political Life,” which reads: “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.”

A representative in the office of Cardinal Francis George, president of the USCCB, said Cardinal George declined to comment on the issue because Notre Dame is out of the organization’s jurisdiction.

Bishop John D’Arcy of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, who has been critical of University decisions in the past – most notably the decision to allow “The Vagina Monologues” to be performed on campus – had not released a statement regarding the Obama announcement as of press time and could not be reached Monday. Jenkins said Sunday he had spoken with D’Arcy regarding the decision but did not disclose further information.

Costanzo said the University is seeking prestige and honoring a man rather than God and the Church.

“There’s tremendous appeal to having a president deliver the Commencement address for the University,” he said. “It brings great fanfare, popularity and word of mouth for Notre Dame. Every time a president has spoken there in the past, there has been great visibility for Notre Dame.”

Costanzo said the society is currently garnering support and considering different courses of action.

“We will continue to maintain the Web site and the planning is ongoing as we talk with other Catholic institutions,” he said. “We’re collaborating about how to most effectively support one another’s effort.”

The Observer reported Monday that Jenkins said the invitation to Obama to deliver the Commencement address “is not intended to condone or endorse his position on specific issues regarding life.”

But Joseph Scheidler, director of the Pro-Life Action League and a Notre Dame alumnus of the class of 1950, said the University’s decision is “an insult to all Notre Dame stands for.”

The Pro-Life Action League, a Chicago-based, anti-abortion organization, released a press release Friday asking Jenkins to withdraw his invitation to Obama to speak at the graduation ceremony.

Scheidler said a university gives approval about what a person stands for when extending an invitation to deliver a commencement address.

He said the University’s invitation to Obama, who he called a “pro-death president,” contradicts the Catholic nature of the University.

Scheidler said he is planning to protest in the months leading up to the ceremony as well as on graduation day.

“I’m going to contact various pro-life groups that display the pictures of what abortion is,” he said. “There will be hundreds and hundreds of graphic pictures at the exits to the expressway and on the campus if my lawyers can get us a spot.”

Scheidler also said he is planning a protest outside the Joyce Center, where Commencement will be held. He said he will gather supporters to ask people attending the ceremony to abstain from applauding for Obama.

“When Obama speaks, we are going to try to cut the applause as much as possible,” he said.

Scheidler said he doesn’t expect Jenkins to withdraw the invitation, but he hopes his action will raise awareness for the pro-life cause.

Randall Terry, founder of the pro-life organization Operation Rescue, expressed similar plans to protest in South Bend.

He said an Operation Rescue staffer will come to South Bend Wednesday. Terry said he will come Friday and stay with several staff members until the graduation ceremony takes place or Obama withdraws.

“We are not going to take this lying down; and we are not going to simply send e-mails and make phone calls. By week’s end, we will have an office open and fully staffed in South Bend,” he said in a press release.

Terry told The Observer he hopes to be working with other pro-life and religious groups to protest the Commencement.

Terry said he has a lot of plans, but does not want to disclose them in order to have an “element of surprise.”

“We will recruit people from all of the country, and we will make this a circus,” he said.

Terry said he has been in contact with student groups on campus, but is not at liberty to say which students or groups.

Brown said he does not want to comment on the University’s response to future because that possibility is hypothetical.

However, the student handbook, “duLac: A Guide to Student Life,” states that “only members of the University community may organize or lead a demonstration on campus.”

The handbook also states student demonstrations must be registered in writing with the associate vice president for Residence Life, be “peaceful and orderly” and they cannot “impede the freedom of the University community.”

Aaron Steiner contributed to this report.