White House Pushes Back Against Protests of Pending Presidential Honorary Degree From Notre Dame

May 12, 2009 5:05pm

The White House today aggressively pushed back against the notion that the opposition of one Notre Dame University group to President Obama receiving an honorary degree at their commencement ceremony this Sunday is representative of widespread feelings on campus on among Catholics in general.

"I think there’s one group organizing a boycott," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said, "and, as best I can understand it, there are 23 groups that have formed in support of the president’s invitation."

The group organizing the boycott, ND Response, will on Saturday will be holding a candle-light vigil to protest the loss of innocent life, and on Sunday they will be staging a meditation ceremony and a rally to pray for graduates. Part of all three events, an organizer said, is a protest of Notre Dame honoring "a political figure who supports abortion and stem cell research."

The group is a coalition of 11 anti-abortion groups ranging from the Notre Dame Right to Life organization to the Notre Dame College Republicans to the Notre Dame Law St. Thomas More Society.

"Our objection is not a matter of political partisanship, but of President Obama’s hostility to the Catholic Church’s teachings on the sanctity of human life at its earliest stages," the group wrote in a letter. "Further, the University’s decision runs counter to the policy of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops against honoring pro-choice politicians. We cannot sit by idly while the University honors someone who believes that an entire class of human beings is undeserving of the most basic of all legal rights, the right to live."

The group has been protesting President Obama’s pending honorary degree since March, when President Obama’s commencement speech schedule was announced.

The "23 groups" Gibbs mentioned was a reference to a letter written to University president The Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C. from groups ranging from the African Student Association to the College Democrats to the Notre Dame Peace Fellowship to the Spanish Club criticizing "those who would rather divide than work together for common ground and for the common good. We are concerned that in narrowing the focus to one aspect of life that has often proven polarizing and divisive many have lost the ability to recognize the other aspects of President Obama’s work that continues to uphold the principles of justice and solidarity."

Gibbs also noted that E. Brennan Bollman, the school’s valedictorian, is supportive of the invitation. He noted that "public polling done by Pew shows a majority of Catholics are in support of the invitation to speak at the commencement" (50% in favor, 28% opposed).

Gibbs added that "I think I saw a figure that 97 percent of the students are supportive."

Gibbs got that one wrong — that’s a reference to an Associated Press story reporting that of the 95 Notre Dame seniors who wrote letters to the student newspaper The Observer, 97 percent supported the president’s invitation. More than 2,900 students will receive degrees on Sunday. of which 2,001 are undergraduate seniors.

Gibbs said "the president understands the right of anybody in this country to disagree and to exercise their disagreement in that way.  I think it’s important to understand it appears as if the vast majority of students and the majority of Catholics are supportive of the invitation the president accepted.  And I know he’s greatly looking forward to seeing them."

President Obama received 54% of the Catholic vote last November, with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., receiving 45%. Twenty-seven percent of voters identified themselves as Catholic.

In Notre Dame’s home county, St. Joseph County, Indiana, President Obama beat McCain, 68,710 votes to McCain’s 48,510.

Mr. Obama will be the ninth U.S. president to receive an honorary degree from Notre Dame and the sixth sitting president to address graduates.

- jpt

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