By John Mccormick
SOUTH BEND, Ind. (MCT) – Andrew Chronister will graduate from the University of Notre Dame on May 17, but the theology major from La Grange, Ill., will not be at his own commencement ceremony, choosing instead to attend a prayer service for the unborn.”This president stands for many pro-abortion or pro-choice policies that are in direct conflict of my Catholic faith,” Chronister said. “Notre Dame has prepared me to live out my life as a Catholic and this is one of those ways that I am doing that.”
As President Barack Obama prepares to speak at the school’s spring commencement – and receive an honorary doctorate from what many consider the cathedral of Catholic education – the debate remains robust on campus and well beyond whether such a prominent supporter of abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research should be welcomed.
Chronister, 22, who plans to attend the prayer service with his parents, said he suspects between 20 and 50 of his fellow seniors also will boycott an appearance that has triggered protests from students and others, brought condemnations from bishops and closed the checkbooks of some graduates.
As students have busily studied for final exams, the debate has played out in curious ways under the iconic Golden Dome – and above. A small plane has been flown across South Bend in recent days, pulling behind it a banner displaying the remains of an aborted fetus.
While the opponents have generated plenty of news coverage, many students and Catholics are supportive of the university’s decision, a point White House press secretary Robert Gibbs sought to make earlier this week.
“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 it,” Gibbs said.
On Sunday, protesters will register their disapproval in numerous ways, ranging from rallies to prayer to graphic displays. The drama has been building ever since Obama’s acceptance of the invitation was announced in late March, and the speech will be widely reviewed for how he confronts the controversy.
As a candidate, Obama often talked about being able to “disagree without being disagreeable.” It is a theme he seems likely to reprise in his remarks to the graduates, including some who plan to remain silent as others applaud him inside the Joyce Center, a legendary basketball arena that seats more than 11,000.
The Notre Dame speech comes as the White House has started to bring together abortion-rights supporters and opponents to discuss proposals that both sides could back to reduce unwanted pregnancies and abortions.
The meetings began about a month ago – shortly after the Notre Dame controversy erupted – and are expected to run a couple more months, with the goal of having a proposal by late summer. The White House is interested in such ideas as sex education, contraception and adoption. Members of the Class of 2009 will likely not easily forget who their speaker was, but they may also be forced to escort their relatives and friends past abortion photos.
ND Response, a student group that has organized opposition to Obama’s appearance, has asked that “neither graphic images nor negatively worded signs” be brought onto campus. Still, some seniors worry the controversy will tarnish their day of accomplishment.
As with any presidential visit, security will be tight. But with the influx of hundreds or thousands of protesters, the campus and community are expected to be on an even higher level of alert.
Last week, Alan Keyes, who lost to Obama in a lopsided 2004 election for U.S. Senate in Illinois, was arrested with 21 others when they refused to leave the campus during a protest that included baby carriages with dolls covered in fake blood.
Notre Dame’s commencement address is one of three the president will give this spring. He spoke Wednesday at a graduation ceremony at Arizona State University and is scheduled to speak late next week at the U.S. Naval Academy in Maryland.
Catholics supported Obama over Sen. John McCain in the 2008 election by a nine-point margin (54 percent to 45 percent), according to exit polls. That was significantly better than Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry did against then-President George W. Bush in 2004.
Only about half of Catholics surveyed in late April by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life had heard about Obama’s planned appearance. Among that group, 38 percent said the school had made the wrong decision, although those who attend Mass weekly were more likely to be opposed.
Notre Dame’s president, Rev. John Jenkins, has said that the invitation to Obama does not imply the school supports all of his positions. Rather, he has argued that it is the basis for “further positive engagement.”
The university’s plan to honor a politician whose abortion rights record clashes with a fundamental church teaching, however, has prompted a strong reaction from the nation’s Catholic bishops, with at least 74 publicly denouncing or questioning the decision.
Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is among those expressing opposition. Bishop John D’Arcy of the Diocese of Ft. Wayne-South Bend, whose jurisdiction includes Notre Dame, has also said he will boycott the ceremony.
Earlier this month, Bishop Thomas Wenski of the diocese based in Orlando, Fla., even took the unusual step of celebrating a Mass of Reparation to make amends for sins against God because of what he called the university’s “clueless” decision to invite Obama.
Mary Ann Glendon, a former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, has also turned down a prestigious Notre Dame medal because she would have shared the stage with Obama. National organizations, including the Cardinal Newman Society and Pro-Life Action League, rapidly mobilized after the university made its announcement. They led online petition efforts that attracted hundreds of thousands of signatures and will bus protesters to Notre Dame on Sunday.
Cathleen Kaveny, a Notre Dame professor of law and theology, said it is often a challenge to get a large number of faculty members to attend graduation ceremonies. This year, she said a lottery was needed to determine who got tickets.
“I think he will acknowledge the broad Catholic social justice tradition,” said Kaveny, who was part of Obama’s National Catholic Advisory Council during the campaign. “And I think he will acknowledge the moral commitment to the dignity of human beings.”
Live Webcast of Obama commencement speech
The University of Notre Dame commencement ceremony will be broadcast live on the Internet starting at 2 p.m. on May 17. To watch, visit the university’s commencement Web site, commencement.nd.edu.