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Bestowing a most dishonorable honor
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President Obama’s planned commencement address today at Notre Dame has re-opened wounds still festering since last November’s presidential elections.   There, the Catholic Church split in half (that is, with 70% of registered Catholics voting, 45% chose McCain, 54% voted for Obama.)

Our new President, of course, has plenty to gain by accepting (apparently even requesting) the opportunity.  The University has a great deal to lose.

It would be bad enough for the nation’s best-known Catholic institution of higher education to welcome a president who openly opposes fundamental Catholic teaching about the sanctity of life.  But by spotlighting him as a mentor figure, solicited to inspire and challenge the students at such a pivotal moment in life, the school’s board of directors spit in the face of Catholic moral teaching and of the Church’s Magisterium.  The critical issue of human life has thereby been relegated to secondary status.  And by conferring an honorary degree, the university sets its seal of approval on everything that is Obama.   Given Obama’s agenda, this is moral suicide.

Any efforts to qualify the honors and explain the underlying motives mean nothing to a public moved more by images and symbols than by fine print.

As one conservative website puts it, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” and, by inviting the President, Notre Dame is “shooting itself in the foot.”

References to other key issues of our day, all of which impact the quality of human life, cannot diminish the magnitude of President Obama’s full-scale attack on the unborn.    Understanding this is not rocket science.  

Among the most alarming elements of the president’s campaign against the unborn are his defense of partial birth abortion, the most horrendous procedure an American doctor can legally perform; his failure to support legislation protecting a child who survives an abortion; and his efforts to remove the “conscience clause” which allows doctors and nurses serving in hospitals receiving federal funds to decline participating in an abortion.
Our Commander-in-Chief is mobilizing an army to implement the strategy he promised to unleash upon election: the “Freedom of Choice Act” which would strike down all the restrictions on abortion won since Roe v. Wade.

According to the “Cardinal Newman Society for Higher Education”, “Obama’s support for abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research puts him at odds with the Catholic Church’s teachings.  His invitation to Notre Dame has sparked criticism from at least 74 Catholic bishops…”

 “This nation has many thousands of accomplished leaders in the Catholic Church, in business, in law, in education, in politics, in medicine, in social services, and in many other fields who would be far more appropriate choices to receive such an honor from the University of Notre Dame.

“This honor is clearly a direct violation of the U.S. bishops’ 2004 mandate in ‘Catholics in Political Life’: ‘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 Cardinal Newman Society website invites readers to write Rev. John I. Jenkins, the priest ultimately responsible for inviting President Obama.  

Following is the letter I have sent to President Jenkins of Notre Dame U.:

To President Jenkins:  I’ve searched far and wide, and have yet to discover sufficient justification for such a controversial decision as the invitation of President Obama to speak at your commencement ceremonies, much less to be awarded an honorary degree.  Of course, millions of people admire Barack Obama for his achievement, courage, and vision.   And no doubt you fear the political fallout of not inviting him, as you have previously invited his predecessors.  But if you are authentically Catholic, you ought to respect the Church’s stance on the dignity of life in the womb, which Barack Obama (as Senator and President) has so publicly been attacking.

If you are courageous enough to withstand so much opposition in your approval of this invitation, you ought to have had the courage to make a decision that honors God and demonstrates solidarity with our Bishops.

I believe that President Obama is a mature enough man and of sufficient Christian conscience to have understood and accepted graciously the absence of an invitation to Notre Dame.  In fact, he probably would have respected the University for witnessing to its Catholic identity.   You could easily have omitted the bestowing of a degree, as you have in the past to certain presidents, and as Arizona State University did on May 13th.  

Despite having dispensed honorary degrees liberally in the past, ASU seems suddenly to be taking greater precautions.  And, for his part, our new president took it in stride.   He knows he still has a long way to go.

Your decision to grant him the accolades and the spotlight has done significant structural damage to the University’s integrity, reputation, and credibility.  Whatever your motives, they will not exonerate you or other representatives of this University who have chosen, freely, to abandon the most critical issue of our day in order to embrace a president who is undermining every restriction on abortion.  To the cynical, it looks like you’re using the President’s visit to further marginalize the U.S. Bishops.

Perhaps I’m missing something here, and your choice will be vindicated.

But it seems I can hear the voice of someone saying, “Whoever denies me, I will deny in the presence of my Father in heaven”, and “whatever you did to the least of these... you did it to me” (Luke 12:9, Matthew 25:40).

Defenders of your “choice” have cited your past invitation to President George W. Bush.  One should recall that he spoke four months before 9/11, long before he launched the Patriot Act, the Iraqi War, and policies allowing for torture.  While he failed to defend the integrity of human life on a number of fronts, following his appearance at Notre Dame, he did defend the right to life of the unborn with admirable consistency.

Allow me to quote from his concluding remarks to the class of 2001:  “The methods of the past may have been flawed, but the idealism of the past was not an illusion.  Your calling is not easy, because you must do the acting and the caring.   But there is fulfillment in that sacrifice which creates hope for the rest of us.  Every life you help proves that every life might be helped…hope is always the beginning of change.  Thank you for having invited me,  and God bless.”   And yes, we’re hoping for change today.

I hope and pray that good will come out of this scandal.  Maybe it will be the establishment of new - and genuinely Catholic - leadership at the University.  Our Lady, whose name the University bears, will be honored better when the gift of life, to which she bore witness, is once again protected.  As for you, a Catholic priest, I pray that you will remember the call you received from the Lord long ago, to be an “Alter Christus.”

Jesus came to bring us abundant life.  He established his Church for this purpose.   He calls us to be courageous witnesses to the Gospel.   As it is - and may God prove me wrong - you seem to have sold out to lesser values.
Fr. Dean McFalls,  St. Mary of the Assumption Church,  Stockton,  CA