Is Obama a bad choice for Notre Dame?

These days, protests over college commencement speakers herald spring’s arrival as surely as longer days and greening leaves.

The most interesting of this season’s controversies involves President Obama’s scheduled appearance at America’s most prominent Roman Catholic institution of higher learning, the University of Notre Dame. The school traditionally invites a new chief executive to address its graduates, and Obama -- like Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush -- accepted. The president will travel to the school’s South Bend, Ind., campus on May 17 to speak to graduates and to receive, as also is traditional, an honorary doctor of laws degree.

However, a small group of protesters is outraged that a Catholic university would extend such an invitation to a politician who is both pro-choice and willing to countenance embryonic stem cell research -- even if he is, as we used to say, the leader of the free world.

There are a couple of things about this culture-warfare-as-usual controversy that are fresh and consequential enough to be of interest. The first is the protesters and their connections. Many are part of a vocal, Internet-savvy lobby that has been agitating to coerce the church’s prelates into denying Communion to Catholic officeholders who deviate from a rigidly “pro-life” line. Made up of a number of smaller groups, this lobby has campaigned to keep other pro-choice officeholders (of any religion) from speaking at Catholic schools. Its supporters also have been vociferously active in the movement to use abortion as a wedge to lever Catholics into the religious right.


The effort turns on convincing Catholics -- for decades now, the principal swing voters in presidential elections -- that they’re obliged to vote on the basis of moral issues important to the right wing of the church, such as abortion, stem cell research and, more recently, marriage equality. The movement has attracted a handful of marginal figures among the country’s Catholic bishops. Two of them -- the bishops of Phoenix and South Bend -- have weighed in condemning Obama’s appearance at Notre Dame. The South Bend bishop, who usually attends the graduation, has said he’ll boycott this year’s ceremony.

The principal organizer of the Notre Dame protest is a group called the Cardinal Newman Society -- no, they’re not the people who ran the Newman Centers you may recall from your college campus. This bunch came together in 1992 to enforce more stringent orthodoxy at American Catholic universities.

One of its projects is to publish essays by the Rev. C. John McCloskey, the Opus Dei priest who acts as a kind of chaplain to the GOP’s neoconservatives and was influential in the conversion to traditional Catholicism of such prominent conservative commentators as Robert Novak and Larry Kudlow. In one of the essays disseminated by the society, McCloskey argues that “for a university to be truly Catholic,” its faculty would have to be “exclusively” Catholic. Welcome back to the Counter-Reformation.

The Newman Society is linked to two organizations -- and the Fidelis Center -- whose programs are clearly geared toward bringing Catholics into the Republican Party.

Two vigorous spokesmen for the protest have been Southern California talk-show host Hugh Hewitt and Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry, who converted from evangelical Protestantism to Catholicism about four years ago. “The faithful Catholic world is justly enraged at the treachery of Notre Dame’s leadership,” Terry said. “Notre Dame will rue the day they invited this agent of death to speak.”

Some people just won’t be happy until the Inquisition has office space again and kindling is being piled up around the local stakes.

What’s most interesting is the push-back they’re getting. The publisher of the influential National Catholic Reporter newspaper has accused the Newman Society of trying to turn the church’s universities into “Catholic madrasas.” Father John Jenkins, the university’s president, has said he has no intention of withdrawing the invitation made to Obama, whom he called “an inspiring leader.”

According to Notre Dame’s campus newspaper, student reaction to the invitation has been overwhelmingly positive, though the paper reports an interesting split: 70% of the letters it has received from alumni oppose the president’s appearance, while 73% of current students and 97% of the graduating seniors approve of the invitation.


It seems that GOP activists are going to have to look elsewhere -- and to another generation -- for their single-issue voters.