March 26, 2009 -- Officials at the University of Notre Dame are standing firmly behind their decision to invite President Obama to deliver the university's commencement address, despite strong opposition from some vocal Catholics.
The university's invitation to the president to speak at the May 17 ceremony has prompted a northwest Indiana bishop to say he will boycott it and has sparked an online campaign from a Catholic advocacy group trying to get Obama uninvited.
The Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., the university's president, said in a statement that the invitation does not mean Notre Dame supports all of Obama's decisions and that it should not be taken as condoning or endorsing his positions on issues like abortion and embryonic stem cell research.
"Presidents from both parties have come to Notre Dame for decades to speak to our graduates -- and to our nation and world -- about a wide range of pressing issues -- from foreign policy to poverty, from societal transformation to social service. We are delighted that President Obama will follow in this long tradition of speaking from Notre Dame on issues of substance and significance," Jenkins said.
Earlier this month, Obama signed an executive order lifting a ban on the use of federal funding for research on new embryonic stem cell lines. He said that day he rejected the "false choice between sound science and moral values."
Three days after taking the oath of office, Obama lifted the Mexico City policy, allowing nongovernmental organizations that receive international family planning assistance through the U.S. government to provide or promote abortion as a method of family planning in other countries.
Dennis Brown, a spokesman for Notre Dame, told ABC News he doesn't foresee any circumstances where the university would rescind its invitation to Obama.
Bishop D'Arcy to Boycott Commencement
The White House said Tuesday that the president welcomes "the spirit of debate and healthy disagreement on important issues."
"Notre Dame is one of the first universities President Obama will visit as president and he is honored to address the graduating class, their families and faculty of a school with such a rich history of fostering the exchange of ideas," White House deputy press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement. "While he is honored to have the support of millions of people of all faiths, including Catholics with their rich tradition of recognizing the dignity of people, he does not govern with the expectation that everyone sees eye to eye with him on every position and the spirit of debate and healthy disagreement on important issues is part of what he loves about this country."
Bishop John D'Arcy of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., where Notre Dame is located, said in a statement that he will not attend the commencement ceremony because of Obama's "long-stated unwillingness to hold human life as sacred."
"While claiming to separate politics from science, he has in fact separated science from ethics and has brought the American government, for the first time in history, into supporting direct destruction of innocent human life," D'Arcy said. "My decision is not an attack on anyone, but is in defense of the truth about human life."
This will be the first commencement D'Arcy will miss in his 25 years as head of the diocese.
Online Opposition Grows
The Cardinal Newman Society, an organization whose stated purpose is "renewing and strengthening Catholic identity" at the nation's 224 Catholic universities and colleges, created a Web site and an online petition to try to push Notre Dame into rescinding the invitation.
As of midday Wednesday, more than 130,000 signatures had been added to the online petition, which calls the invitation "an outrage and a scandal" and charges Notre Dame with choosing "prestige over principles, popularity over morality."
David Costanzo, a representative for the Cardinal Newman Society, repeatedly stressed in an interview with ABC News that the organization was not protesting or attacking Obama. Rather, he said, the issue was about Notre Dame.
"We believe that we have a responsibility to present the voices or signatures of these people to Father Jenkins, along with all the other organizations that are mobilizing, to make a stand about the fact that a Catholic institution is hosting someone who promotes an agenda that's contrary to the Catholic faith," Costanzo said.
Despite the claim that the protest is about Notre Dame and not about Obama, the society's online petition decried Obama's recent policy decisions as "some of the most anti-life actions of any American president."
"What Father Jenkins has chosen to do is take a democratic position to the invitation to President Obama and the truths that we hold in the Catholic faith are not democratic," Costanzo said. "They are hard truths, they are unchanging truths and the dignity of and protection of human life is paramount."
'No Platform' Rule Open to Interpretation
Though university officials are standing firm in their decision, Costanzo said that the ultimate goal would be for Notre Dame to withdraw its invitation to Obama.
"We have strong hope that it is still a good likelihood, and hence we continue with our efforts with the petition and with talking to news media," he said.
In 2004, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops approved a policy statement called "Catholics in Political Life," which would prohibit awards or honors to individuals who "act in defiance" of the Catholic Church's "fundamental moral principles."
"They should not be given awards, honors or platforms, which would suggest support for their actions," the paper said.
Costanzo and the society believe that Notre Dame is failing to acknowledge that statement.
But is the statement a hard-and-fast rule?
Chester Gillis, a dean at Georgetown University and the author of "Roman Catholicism in America," believes it can be interpreted in different ways, depending on how you read the document. He noted that Pope John Paul II expressed his strong disapproval of the war in Iraq, which many politicians from both parties supported.
Former President George W. Bush held a town hall meeting on Notre Dame's campus in March 2005 as part of his efforts to shore up support for his Social Security reform plans.
Gillis said that by virtue of his office, the president should be welcome on any college campus and to suggest that every president would be aligned with every Catholic position is "probably naive."
"Pro-life issues are the dominant issues in the Roman Catholic Church. That's justified and there's disagreement there. So do you disenfranchise a person of this stature and therefore deprive your students of hearing from the president of the United States because he has a particular view that is at odds with the church -- when many of his other views, like helping the poor, ending the war in Iraq, may be aligned?" Gillis asked.
Catholics United, a progressive advocacy group, called the opposition "knee-jerk."
"Many of those attacking Notre Dame are notably silent when others who hold positions contrary to Catholic doctrine speak at Catholic colleges and universities," said Catholics United executive director Chris Korzen. "Catholic institutions of higher learning enjoy a long tradition of promoting open and honest dialogue about contemporary political and theological issues."
Obama Is Ninth U.S. President to Receive Notre Dame Honorary Degree
While scholars and political pundits debate the issue, the Notre Dame student body is also considering what it means to have the president's attendance become the story of their commencement.
Bob Reish, a graduating senior and president of Notre Dame's student body, said he wants to redirect the focus back to the Class of 2009.
Reish has participated in discussions with students about having Obama at the commencement ceremony and said that while there has been "a general excitement," there are differing opinions.
"Many students are honored to have the opportunity to hear President Obama speak at commencement and agree with the university's interpretation of academic freedom. However some students are concerned that bringing President Obama to campus and offering him an honorary degree is in conflict with church teaching, outlined by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops," Reish said in an e-mail to ABC News.
Notre Dame's Dennis Brown said that the university "certainly expected criticism and support" for this decision and has received both, but nothing more than what was anticipated.
Brown said that Notre Dame officials have not been in contact with representatives from the Cardinal Newman Society but noted "there would be no reason to do so."
Jenkins cited Obama as an "inspiring leader who faces many challenges -- the economy, two wars and health care, immigration and education reform -- and is addressing them with intelligence, courage and honesty."
Obama will be the ninth U.S. president to receive an honorary degree from Notre Dame and the sixth sitting president to address graduates.
The White House announced last week that the president would deliver commencement addresses at Notre Dame, Arizona State University and the U.S. Naval Academy. This continues the tradition started under President George W. Bush to speak each year at a private school, a public school and one of the service academies.
Obama will be awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree at the commencement ceremony at Notre Dame.
ABC News' Sunlen Miller contributed to this report.