Dispute Over Catholic School Speakers

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By Casey Feldman
News Editor
Published: April 30, 2009

In May, openly pro-choice President Barack Obama will deliver the commencement address at Notre Dame and will receive an honorary degree. This has drawn protests from thousands of Catholics.

Should speakers at Catholic universities communicate the same values as the institution? Fordham, Notre Dame and other Catholic schools have been criticized for hosting those with pro-choice beliefs. (Photo Illustration by Alex Palomino/The Observer)

Similar disputes over speakers whose views conflict with Catholic beliefs have arisen at Fordham, Georgetown and elsewhere. These continuing controversies demonstrate that there is no clear consensus on how Catholic universities should receive speakers whose views are not in keeping with Catholic dogma.

In their opposition, “Right-wing Catholics… fail utterly to understand the calling of a Catholic university,” said Peter Steinfels, co-director of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture, “which, as Pope John Paul II wrote in his text on Catholic higher education, must give witness to the Church’s readiness to engage in conversation with all kinds of sincerely and thoughtfully held moral positions,” he said.

Notre Dame has traditionally invited presidents to speak at commencement and presented them with honorary degrees. Past recipients include George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. Kofi Annan, former secretary general of the U.N., spoke and received a degree in 2000. Annan is pro-choice and has received awards from abortion rights groups.

Some experts say that simply inviting Obama, or any publicly pro-choice individual, to speak at a Catholic school is acceptable, but that presenting him or her with an honorary degree is not.

This can be attributed to a document created by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Part of the 2004 document 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.”

The president of the United States Conference of Catholic bishops has denounced Notre Dame’s decision to host Obama.

The Rev. Robert R. Grimes, S.J., said, “There is a difference between letting someone speak and honoring them. [What they are doing at Notre Dame] is clearly an honor. On the other hand, there is something special about the president that transcends politics, transcends whether or not you agree with the president on all issues.”

Grant Gallicho, associate editor of the Catholic opinion magazine Commonweal, said he feels that Notre Dame’s invitation to Obama is not necessarily in defiance of the Bishops’ statement. He pointed out the fact that Notre Dame’s president “has taken the opportunity to restate publicly his and Notre Dame’s opposition to Obama’s [positions on abortion and stem cell research].”

Gallicho said, “It is clear that Notre Dame is not honoring Obama in a way that ‘suggest[s] support’ for his views on abortion rights and [stem cell research].”

A staff editorial on the topic of Obama and Notre Dame that appeared in Commonweal’s April 10 issue stated, “Honorary degrees signify an institution’s admiration for the accomplishments of the recipient. They do not signify blanket moral approbation.”

Many other Catholics, however, don’t agree. Mary Ann Glendon, who, according to the Associated Press, is an anti-abortion scholar, Harvard law professor and former ambassador to the Vatican, is one of them. Glendon was to receive Notre Dame’s highly prestigious Laetare medal at this year’s commencement. However, Glendon said she would not accept the award because she feels Notre Dame’s invitation to Obama violates the Bishops’ document.

Steinfels, a previous recipient of the Laetare medal, said he is “disappointed” by Glendon’s decision and “finds her reasoning highly contrived.”

Gallicho stressed that the Bishops’ document is not binding, nor does it constitute canon law. He also drew attention to a comparable situation: when former New York Archbishop Edward Egan invited Obama to speak at the Al Smith dinner, an important Archdiocese fundraising event, in 2008. It is a sometimes-tradition for the presidential candidates to be invited to the dinner; John McCain also spoke and attended. However, George W. Bush and pro-choice John Kerry were not invited in 2004.

“The basic reality is that right-wing Catholics were not interested in challenging the Catholic character of Cardinal Egan, while they are very interested in challenging the Catholic character of Notre Dame and other Catholic universities, including Fordham,” Steinfels said.

Fordham was criticized last yearwhen its law school gave Stephen J. Breyer, a supreme court justice who helped overturn the ban on “partial birth abortions” in Nebraska, an ethics award.

Grimes said, “The position of a judge can be a little different… [It is possible that] a valid interpretation of the U.S. Constitution results in a decision that doesn’t comply with the Catholic Church.”

Margaret Steinfels, co-director of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture, spoke at Notre Dame’s commencement in 1991. She said, “There are many aspects of Obama’s political program that are congenial to Notre Dame and many Catholics, though his pro-choice views are not among them. Weighing the symbolic meaning of the presidential office… along with those many policies congruent with the consistent ethic of life, the invitation to Obama makes sense,” she said.

Charles Camosy, an assistant professor of Christian ethics at Fordham who formerly taught at Notre Dame, said, “I understand the feelings and the rationale of those who protest. Notre Dame is honoring Obama, and from the perspective of those who see abortion as a holocaust, Notre Dame is therefore honoring the equivalent of a holocaust-supporter.”

However, Camosy pointed out the fact that Obama fights against violence and for vulnerable people in other ways.

“The best way to bridge the gap between Obama… and those [who are pro-life] is to life is to engage in charitable dialogue characterized by mutual… respect. Notre Dame’s decision to host Obama is an important step toward this goal,” he said.

“[If Obama wanted to speak at Fordham,] I would ask him what he wanted to speak about,” Grimes said. “If he wanted to speak about issues compatible with this institution, I would happily invite him. As head of state, there is a certain respect for the office.” However, Grimes said, “He needs to respect the institution, as well.”