Not that anyone should be surprised, but a portion of the national community that makes up Notre Dame's supporters, alumni, students and the parents of students, are none too thrilled with the fact that President Obama will be speaking at the institution's graduation this spring and receiving an honorary degree. Their problem is that Obama's official policies directly contradict Catholic teaching on the subject of the sanctity of human life.
But at least according to MSNBC's First Read, the problem is just the beliefs of those "strict" Catholics:
The point of contention? The president's record on issues related to abortion, the majority of which clash with the strict anti-abortion stance of the Catholic Church. An online petition has sprung up urging people to voice their complaints to Father John Jenkins, president of the university.
Jenkins said in an interview with the student paper Monday that while there are clear differences between the president and the Catholic church on some issues (abortion and embryonic stem cell research), it was a great honor to have the president accept the university's offer and that he had no plans to rescind the offer.
A majority of the student body is enthusiastic about President Obama coming to speak -- he won the campus' mock election 52.6% to 41.1% over Sen. John McCain -- but an active alumni base that skews more conservative than the increasingly liberal campus has been vocal about the selection of the commencement speaker.
So the "strict" Catholics oppose the invitation to President Obama, as opposed to what other kinds of Catholics? There is an answer to that question that reporters should include in their articles. It would be interesting to see the definition attached to those Catholics. See here for Tmatt's summary of the four types of Catholics of which reporters should be aware:
* Ex-Catholics. Solid for the Democrats. GOP has no chance.
* Cultural Catholics who may go to church a few times a year. This may be an undecided voter — check out that classic Atlantic Monthly tribes of American religion piece -- depending on what is happening with the economy, foreign policy, etc. Leans to Democrats.
* Sunday-morning American Catholics. This voter is a regular in the pew and may even play some leadership role in the parish. This is the Catholic voter that is really up for grabs, the true swing voter that the candidates are after.
* The "sweats the details" Roman Catholic who goes to confession. Is active in the full sacramental life of the parish and almost always backs the Vatican, when it comes to matters of faith and practice. This is where the GOP has made its big gains in recent decades, but it is a very small slice of the American Catholic pie.
In The Los Angeles Times write-up of the controversy, there aren't any voices from independent Catholics who support the invitation, or are at least not opposed. The Associated Press article plays the story a bit closer and resists the urge to portray this outrage as somehow surprising or a representation of some strange strict sect of Catholicism.
In another facet of the story, Notre Dame's president says that the honorary degree is not supposed to condone his positions regarding abortion:
Notre Dame President Fr. John Jenkins says that the honorary degree "is not intended to condone or endorse his position on specific issues regarding life." Jenkins also commented: "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."
If that is the case, what does the honorary degree endorse or condone and is this just something people should take on faith or is there a little exemption clause in the degree certificate that makes that clear? Somehow I doubt that, but it makes for nice PR cover. For example, when Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke at my alma mater Butler University in 2003, the express purpose was to recognize his life's work and to highlight the principles by which he lived his life. Former GetReligion blogger Mark Stricherz points out that inviting Obama to speak at Notre Dame would be akin to "inviting Barry Goldwater in 1965, the year after he had opposed the Civil Rights Act."
At least one reporter, Julia Duin of The Washington Times, managed to report that giving Obama the honorary degree will violate a policy of the U.S. Conference on Catholic Bishops:
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2004, he added, specifically forbade giving "awards, honors or platforms" to "those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles."
It is hard to tell whether this story will pick up any steam, but the Bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend (South Bend is where Notre dame is located, Fort Wayne is the state's second largest city), announced that he will not attend the graduation. The next shoe to drop will be whether Obama addresses the issue of the sanctity of human life in his address.