What happened at the University of Notre Dame over the last few weeks will be remembered as an important event in the history of the US Catholic Church and the pro-life movement. It has thrown light on a liberal / traditionalist divide within the Church which must be healed if the Church is to be credible in its pro-life teaching.
On March 20, 2009, President Fr. John Jenkins of the Univeristy of Notre Dame –the USA’s most prominent Catholic institution of higher learning—formally announced that he had invited US president Barack Obama to deliver the commencement address to the University’s graduates on May 17, 2009, and to receive an honorary doctorate in Law. There was only one problem: Barack Obama, according to some in pro-life circles, is the single most pro-abortion president in the history of the United States. The university of Notre-Dame, on the other hand, is nominally Catholic, and thus officially considers direct abortion an intrinsically evil act – an act forbidden under any circumstance whatsoever. Moreover, in line with the traditional teachings of the Catholic Church, the US conference of Bishops had published in 2004 a document entitled “Catholics in Political Life” which outlined how to deal with pro-abortion public persons. In that document the following directive can be found: “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.” However, a leaked memo written by Jenkins to the Notre Dame board of Trustees shows that Jenkins had spotted what he believed to be a chink in the directive, in that the latter was meant for Catholics only, given that the title of the document was "Catholics in Political Life"—non-catholics were therefore exempt from this particular prohibition against receiving awards or platforms, Jenkins believed.
The blogospheric reaction to the news of Jenkins’ invitation was swift. Within about a month’s time over 350,000 signatures on a letter demanding that the invitation be rescinded were gathered on a site specially built by the Notre-Dame Cardinal Newman Society. And along with the blogospheric storm crashed down on Notre-Dame a wave of bishopric reaction. According to LifeSiteNews, no less than 79 US bishops firmly condemned the invitation. South Bend’s (and thus Notre-Dame’s) own bishop, the Most Reverend John D’Arcy, even announced he would boycott the event, and chastised Jenkins for failing to consult with him before going ahead with the invitation. Indeed, Bishop John affirmed in a pastoral letter to his diocese that he would have been happy to clear up any ambiguity in the Bishop’s conference document. He remarked that it was he – the local bishop—and not a canon lawyer who had the final say on the application of canon law within his diocese. He noted that he would quite likely have told Jenkins to find another commencement speaker.
As the date neared, a host of pro-life groups from around the US converged on the Notre Dame campus, waiving placards and staging demonstrations and protests. Members of prominent pro-lifer Randall Terry’s “Operation Rescue” trotted baby carriages with plastic dolls covered with fake blood on campus. Randall Terry himself was arrested for trespassing. A local priest, Fr. Norman Weslin, two days before the address, was charged for trespassing and carried away on a blanket when he refused to leave the premises. A plane flying a banner depicting an aborted foetus regularly circled above the campus. Groups within the university organized an alternate commencement and prayer vigils and a Eucharistic procession. Last but not least, the other speaker invited to the commencement ceremony, Mary Ann Glendon, a former United States ambassador to the Vatican whom Jenkins had invited to speak alongside Obama, and to whom was to be bestowed the prestigious Laetare Medal, had suddenly turned down the invitation, citing, in a letter to Jenkins which she made public, her displeasure at being used as Notre-Dame’s cover for disobeying the Bishop’s clear instruction to not give awards to pro-abortion public persons. But Jenkins held his course. And on the big day, with a reported many hundreds of pro-life protestors lining the streets leading into the campus, inside the basketball stadium made commencement hall a rapturous crowd greeted Obama and shouted down with choruses of “Yes we can!” and “We are ND!” and “Idiot!” the few individuals present at the commencement who booed at the start of Obama’s address. In short, it was, as one media source stated, “an Obama love-in.”