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Obama decision draws continued response

Aaron Steiner | Friday, April 3, 2009

On Tuesday, March 24, Notre Dame Right to Life held their weekly officers meeting. Normally, about ten people show up. That week, 50 to 60 turned up.

Club president Mary Daly, a Notre Dame junior, was expecting a big turnout. Right to Life had invited leaders from a number of campus groups, and officers were expecting that a number of concerned students would join in.

The topic of that week’s meeting? Deciding on a student response to the University’s March 20 announcement that President Barack Obama would deliver the Commencement address this spring, and receive an honorary degree.

The University’s decision to invite Obama has resulted in a firestorm of responses, from both on and off campus.

On campus, leaders of about a dozen student groups decided to form a coalition, named Notre Dame Response, to “express our deepest opposition” to the decision, and to “pledge ourselves to acts of witness” in order to “engage the University community,” according to a March 25 press release from the group.

The group has elicited a huge response, chairperson and senior Chris Labadie said.

“We knew if we put something out there that we were going to get a lot of people who would have a comment,” Labadie said.

“We hoped that it would give some kind of injection of life into the debate,” he said.

The coalition’s leaders told The Observer that they feel that a debate and dialogue about the situation is precisely what’s needed, and in planning events they hope to jumpstart the discussion.

Already, the coalition announced plans to adapt a national campaign to send red envelopes to Obama for the situation at Notre Dame.

The national campaign asked supporters of the pro-life movement to send an empty red envelope to the president to represent a child lost by abortion.

At Notre Dame, the coalition will collect these envelopes and deliver them to University President Fr. John Jenkins, asking him to personally give them to Obama during his May 17 visit.

“It’s to show Fr. Jenkins that there are people out here who want to dialogue on this issue, who disagree with this decision,” Labadie said.

Additionally, the group has announced plans to hold a Prayer Rally on Saturday, the first official event organized by Notre Dame Response.

The event will take place in front of Main Building at 2 p.m. after the noon Palm Sunday mass at the Basilica. The rally will feature an address by nationally recognized attorney Harold Cassidy, known for his work on pro-life issues.

“From now until May 17, we are going to respectfully and prayerfully show the University that we are disappointed in this decision and that we hope for some dialogue to come out of the administration,” Labadie said of Sunday’s and other future events.

According to Daly and Labadie, the dialogue should center on two issues.

“There’s first the pro-life issue, which, obviously there needs to be continued dialogue on, but we feel this has kind of brought to a head the issue of Catholic identity in the University,” Labadie said.

Labadie called the situation “the fork in the road” in regards to Notre Dame’s Catholic identity. Daly agreed that the University must ask itself which direction it will take, and if it’s possible to be both prestigious and Catholic.

“What does it mean to be a Catholic university, and can being a Catholic university and a prestigious university be reconciled?” Daly said.

Both agreed that the discussion about these issues won’t take place on May 17 during Commencement, so, they said, dialogue must take place through other venues.

Daly said while she understands the University’s stance that the invitation serve as the “basis of engagement” for a relationship with Obama on protection of life issues, the context of the invitation isn’t the right venue.

“If the annual forum was on pro-life issues, and they invited President Obama to talk, to represent one side, there really wouldn’t be any problem, necessarily,” Daly said.

“But in this context that, he’s speaking at Commencement, he’s just monologing to us, and that we’re honoring him with a doctorate of laws degree, that’s just incredibly shocking,” she said.

While Daly said she doesn’t expect the invitation will be rescinded, the University still has an opportunity to withdraw the honorary degree, something that the coalition would be pleased with.

“The insult wouldn’t occur in the way that rescinding the invitation would, and furthermore, it would be closer to living up to the Catholic identity,” she said.

The shock and concern expressed by Notre Dame Response has been shared with many Catholics nationwide, and while the coalition will not directly collaborate or coordinate with outside organizations, according to Labadie, they do see value in the response those outside the University have expressed.

“Those outside groups do have a legitimate voice to give,” he said.

Labadie did express concern, however, about the methods that some groups have said they will use to protest the University’s decision.

“We feel as a coalition that it’s contrary to the core values of Notre Dame to do things like bring graphic images and plaster them all over the street, to throw … bloody dolls on the stage,” Labadie said. “Those things are not in the spirit of dialogue.”

Daly said the coalition will respect the academic and intellectual environment that a university has.

“We are going to engage this issue as a university would, and do it in the spirit of Notre Dame,” she said.