A Little Battle for Notre Dame
President Obama and the soul of a Catholic University.


South Bend, Ind. — As he has done every year for a quarter-century, Bishop John Michael D’Arcy told Notre Dame’s graduating class of 2009 about how he received no honors whatsoever when he graduated. It is a speech he gives at the school’s baccalaureate mass on the night before commencement, and most faculty members know it by heart. D’Arcy requests (and always receives) a loud round of applause for the non-honorees of each year’s graduating class.

But a very different sort of honor was on D’arcy’s mind this year. On Saturday evening, the bishop of the Fort Wayne–South Bend Diocese urged a crowd of more than 200 students, along with their parents, faculty, and alumni, to pray for Pres. Barack Obama’s conversion on the issue of abortion.

Speaking at the university’s replica Lourdes grotto, he told NRO that he was deeply concerned about the honor that the university would present the following day to President Obama, arguably the most ardent and least apologetic defender of legal abortion-on-demand ever to hold the United States presidency.

“This is not a Democrat and Republican thing,” said D’Arcy. “It’s not so much about the president, really. The president was elected. He’s going to do what he’s going to do, some of which I think is probably very good. But on this issue, he’s doing what he promised, which is sad. . . . This is about giving an honor to someone whose position on this, not just as president, but even before that, is so antithetical to everything we believe in. . . . It’s a deep wound for Notre Dame.”

From some of the coverage, you might get the impression that the fight over President Obama’s invitation to Notre Dame was the “circus” that had been promised by Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry. And news organizations did pick up many images of arrests, of Alan Keyes pushing a blood-covered doll in a baby carriage, and of the airplane that has circled campus for weeks now, dragging a banner behind it with the picture of an aborted baby.

But as Bishop D’Arcy put it, “We’re not joining up with the people who are making it a circus. I’ve tried to distance the Catholic Church from that.”

In fact, it was the resistance to Obama’s appearance from within the university community that mattered most on graduation day. Every indication on campus suggested that it created a minor crisis. Every important speech at graduation was dominated by the controversy, rather than by a discussion of graduates’ futures.

The student group ND Response formed quickly after the mid-March announcement of Obama’s speech, and its student leadership quickly honed the message: Notre Dame is creating a scandal and endangering its Catholic identity by granting Obama a place of honor and an honorary law degree, in direct contradiction to the American bishops’ instructions for Catholic universities. As one of the group’s earliest releases stated, “To award a Notre Dame law degree to a lawyer and politician who has used the law to deny equality to the unborn diminishes the value of the degree itself.”

ND Response criticized and engaged the university’s administration both on the campus and in the national press. They organized protests and prayer meetings on campus, and arranged for students and faculty to sit for interviews from cable and network news and make their case.

“We came together in the hours following the announcement and decided that we needed to make some kind of a statement,” said Chris Labadie, chairman of ND Response. “The problem is that he’s been invited to give a speech and to receive an honor from the university, an honorary doctorate of laws. As a Catholic university, it seems that we’re honoring his work as it pertains to life issues.”

Several professors, including priests of Notre Dame’s Holy Cross order, became active in promoting and arguing for the students’ cause. “This is not an academic-freedom matter,” said Rev. William Miscamble, a professor of history. “If President Obama wanted to come to Notre Dame and engage in a genuine exchange on life questions, that would be all to the good. But of course, that’s not the event we’re going to experience at commencement. He’s coming to this privileged forum, he’s going to receive an honorary doctorate of laws. And by this action, Notre Dame is saying that we don’t really think that these questions — such as abortion, such as the stem-cell issue — matter that much.”

Even some university administrators sympathized, with a handful of recognizable figures attending ND Response events over the weekend. Few wanted to discuss the issue publicly, however. “It has been made clear that dissenting publicly won’t be tolerated,” said one administrator who requested anonymity.


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