Among Catholics, Obama's Allure May Be Dimming

President Obama has a Catholic problem, say anti-abortion-rights activists who are furious the University of Notre Dame has invited the president to speak at commencement and receive an honorary degree. The protest over the invitation reveals an eye-popping drop in popularity among Catholics.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. The University of Notre Dame has been abuzz with controversy this week. This after the school invited President Obama to speak at its May graduation. As NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports, some Catholics are having second thoughts about the new president.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: When President Obama accepted an invitation to speak and receive an honorary degree at Notre Dame's commencement ceremony, you'd expect some controversy - but not this.

Mr. PATRICK REILLY (President, Cardinal Newman Society): We've never seen anything like this.

HAGERTY: That's Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, which promotes strict Catholic doctrine at Catholic colleges and universities.

Mr. REILLY: As soon as we heard of this,we posted a petition at notredamescandal.com and as of today, we have over 170,000 signatures.

HAGERTY: The petition demands that the university withdraw the invitation. Reilly notes that in his first two months in office, Mr. Obama has revoked a rule that prohibited international organizations that receive U.S. aid from mentioning abortion. He said he will allow federal funding for stem cell research, and his administration is moving to eliminate the conscience clause that allows health-care workers to deny family planning or abortion counseling.

Mr. REILLY: This president has no respect for the religious principles and beliefs of the Catholic Church.

Dr. SCOTT APPLEBY (Professor of History, Notre Dame University): Notre Dame's not going to back down on this.

HAGERTY: Scott Appleby is professor of history at Notre Dame. He says the university is honoring Mr. Obama for his accomplishments including becoming the first African-American president.

Dr. APPLEBY: I think the majority of students, my sense is, who voted for Obama in a mock election on campus by a landslide are very excited.

HAGERTY: But Appleby acknowledges that Mr. Obama's relationship with Catholics is tentative and weary.

Dr. APPLEBY: I think Catholics are worried not only that the president is pro-choice but even more so, that he is radically pro-choice and is going to strike down the current, existing restrictions on certain types of abortions.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Indeed, if polls are any guide, Mr. Obama has a Catholic problem. Luis Lugo, president of Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, says between February and March, the president's approval rating among all Americans dropped 5 percent. Among Catholics, it plunged 14 percent. And the number of Catholics who disapprove of his performance doubled, from 20 to 41 percent. Lugos says even though Mr. Obama carried Catholics in the election, he had a weak hold on them.

Mr. LUIS LUGO (President, Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life): The Catholic vote is a swing vote. So a lot of that support was not strong Obama support to begin with, and some of these folks, particularly among the most regular attending Catholics, have second thoughts about his job performance.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: In the past, Mr. Obama has tried to offset those doubts by emphasizing stands in line with Catholic teaching, such as diplomacy rather than war, and his interest in the poor.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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Correction April 1, 2009

We said, "Mr. Obama has revoked a rule that prohibited international organizations that receive U.S. aid from mentioning abortion." In fact, the law specifically did not "prohibit the provision, consistent with local law, of information or counseling about all pregnancy options."

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