Catholics debate Notre Dame’s invitation to President Obama

Catholics debate Notre Dame’s invitation to President Obama

Fr. Thomas Reese / Carl Olson
Fr. Thomas Reese / Carl Olson


Debate over the University of Notre Dame’s invitation to President Obama to be commencement speaker and to receive an honorary degree continues, with a prominent Jesuit priest arguing that the action is morally justifiable while a Catholic writer contends that the action shows indifference to the millions of unborn children killed under U.S. law.

Writing in a post on the Washington Post’s "On Faith" blog, Fr. Thomas J. Reese, SJ, former editor of America magazine, criticized the argument that the invitation to Obama violates the U.S. bishops’ statement "Catholics in Political Life."

The statement said that 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."

Fr. Reese argued that having President Obama as a commencement speaker and giving him an honorary degree would not violate this ethic. He said that President Obama has never violated the moral law against abortion "in his personal life."

"Publicly, Obama has never spoken out against the fundamental moral principle that abortion is wrong," he argued, noting that Obama supports some legal restrictions on abortion.

"Although he does not believe that other abortions can be made illegal, he supports programs to reduce the number of abortions," Fr. Reese added, claiming that Notre Dame is honoring Obama as president and not because of his views on abortion.

"Notre Dame is doing nothing more than what has already been done by Cardinal Edward Egan of New York," he argued. "If Cardinal Egan can invite Obama to speak at the Al Smith dinner in October of 2008 when he was only a presidential candidate, then there is certainly nothing wrong with Notre Dame having the President speak at a commencement."

"If Catholic universities are afraid to have people on campus who challenge our views, then we are not training students to listen and think critically," Fr. Reese charged. "We are admitting that our arguments are not convincing."

Carl Olson, a writer at Ignatius Press’ blog "Ignatius Insight," criticized Fr. Reese’s arguments in a Wednesday entry. He noted that "Catholics in Public Life" also stated that legalizing intrinsically evil actions like abortion is "itself wrong." It also asserted that "failing to protect the lives of innocent and defenseless members of the human race is to sin against justice" and said lawmakers are obligated to work towards correcting "morally defective laws."

Olson argued that President Obama has a well-documented record of support for abortion, including opposition to partial-birth abortion bans and legislation protecting infants who survive abortions. He said that Fr. Reese’s language is "rather misleading" in trying to narrowly define what the president has not done while the bishops’ document "clearly points to a broader moral arena."

Noting the President’s perfect ratings with pro-abortion rights groups, Olson remarked: "It's hard to see how anyone could say he has actively stood for the fundamental moral principle that abortion is wrong."

Olson also cited President Obama’s July 2007 speech to a Planned Parenthood group in which the President said Roe v. Wade was "at the center" of his lesson plan on "reproductive freedom" when he taught Constitutional law; and present "not simply as a case about privacy but as part of the broader struggle for women’s equality." Obama also voiced his support for "the freedom of choice."

He argued that Fr. Reese’s attempted distinction between respecting the office of the President and Obama himself does not hold, because the honorary doctor of laws degree is "being conferred upon a specific man" who holds beliefs about essential matters that are "in conflict with the fundamental moral principles of the Catholic Church and, it should follow, a Catholic university."

Defenses of Notre Dame’s invitation to the president "would make sense if abortion were not such a fundamental violation of human rights, such a fundamental contravention of the purpose of government, such a grave and widespread attack on the most vulnerable of human beings, and Barrack Obama were not so prominent a supporter of the pro-abortion rights position," Olson concluded. "By inviting him and honoring him, Notre Dame is simply saying that the right to life for unborn children and the evil of a million legal abortions every year are not that important. It is as simple as that."

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