Presidential Address Sparks Anger

The University of Notre Dame has secured a highly-sought world leader to give its commencement speech later this month: the President of the United States. But some Roman Catholics say President Obama's pro-choice abortion stance should preclude him from being invited to address a Catholic University. Patrick Reilly, of the Cardinal Newman Society, is working to halt the president's visit.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, Senator Arlen Specter leaves the GOP and President Obama gets a national report card for his first 100 days. The Barbershop guys talk about the week in politics and more.

But first, our regular Faith Matters conversation. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. Later this month, President Obama is scheduled to deliver the commencement address and receive an honorary degree at the University of Notre Dame. That news has some Catholics up in arms.

They said the president's position on abortion rights should preclude him from receiving honors from a Catholic university. This week, the story deepened when Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard Law professor and former ambassador to the Vatican during the Bush administration, decided not to accept the prestigious Laetare Medal at the event, saying in essence she could not participate in an event which violated the U.S. bishop's instructions not to honor those who act in defiance of fundamental principles.

In a few minutes we'll hear from the Reverend Richard McBrien. He's a professor of theology at Notre Dame. He's a supporter of the university's decision to invite and to honor of President Obama. But to begin with, I'm joined by Patrick Reilly. He is president of the Cardinal Newman Society. That's an organization that promotes adherence to Catholic doctrine at Catholic- identified colleges and universities, and that group has launched a petition drive to pressure Notre Dame's president to stop its plans to host President Obama, and he joins us on the phone from his office in Manassas.

Mr. Reilly, thank you so much for joining us.

PATRICK REILLY: Well, thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Can I just clarify one point. Is your specific objection to the president being invited to speak at Notre Dame, to offer the commencement at Notre Dame, or is it to receive the honorary degree? Or all the above?

REILLY: Well, the U.S. bishops in 2004 issued a policy asking Catholic institutions not to provide honors or platforms to individuals who are vigorously opposed to fundamental teachings of the Catholic church. And so a commencement address is certainly a platform that doesn't really provide for any dialogue, as Notre Dame has suggested it would, but instead implies some level of great respect for the individual who's chosen, who's asked to provide advice to the graduates. So you know, we're opposed to both. We think that in both instances it's a real concern for Notre Dame.

MARTIN: You've delivered - as I've said, your organization under your leadership has delivered a petition with more than 300,000 signatures to the president of the university. Do I have that right?

REILLY: Yeah, it's actually 350,000 now. We delivered the first 300,000 to Father Jenkins and to each of the members of the board of trustees and fellows.

MARTIN: The argument is made, of course, that Notre Dame delivered - that President George W. Bush delivered the commencement speech at Notre Dame, even though the war the Iraq had not yet started, which the pope vigorously objected to at the time and continues to object to. As governor of Texas he supported the death penalty. He presided over the largest number of executions in the countries - in the country at that time, and that there was no opposition to this. And those - that position is also objected to...

REILLY: Right...

MARTIN: ...by faithful Catholics. How do you - how do you square that?

REILLY: Well, the new archbishop of New York, Archbishop Dolan, addressed this just recently in an interview rather well. And he made it clear that there is a big difference. Now, certainly there's nothing wrong - in fact, something admirable - in a Catholic institution that raises concerns about any individual who comes to a judgment that's clearly contrary what most bishops and the Vatican have come on issues like the war and death penalty.

But in Catholic teaching, those are based on particular principles, that as long as one is adhering to the principles and comes to a different judgment about a particular situation, you can't necessarily protest and say that this is someone who dissents from, from basic Catholic teaching. An issue like abortion, the church considers abortion an intrinsic evil, which means that in every instance and everywhere abortion is - is considered sinful.

And therefore it's a - there is a clear difference when someone supports legal abortion or - as President Obama has done - to support a great expansion of abortion rights and elimination of many restrictions on abortion. That's a much greater concern for the church, although certainly war and death penalty and other issues are of serious concern for us as well.

MARTIN: The president of Notre Dame, Father John Jenkins, issued a statement making clear that the invitation does not mean that the university supports all of President Obama's positions, saying it shouldn't be taken as condoning or endorsing his positions on specific issues regarding the protection of human life, including abortion and embryonic stem cell research, yet we see his visit as a basis for further positive engagement. And other critics of your position say that your stance is anti-intellectual and the implication is that those who disagree can never be engaged on any issue. How do you respond to that?

REILLY: Well, I'm all for Notre Dame engaging President Obama and anyone else on these issues. That's not what's happening here. They're honoring him. And there is no engagement. There's no intellectual discussion. This is a commencement ceremony where President Obama will provide his advice to graduates of Notre Dame. It's a completely different situation.

MARTIN: What about his commitment to social justice? The other critics of your position say that it completely diminishes the president's commitment to social justice, which is at least as much of a priority - is a priority to many Catholics.

REILLY: Uh-huh.

MARTIN: And in fact the polls show - a recent poll indicates that most Catholics who've heard about the issues support the university's decision in part because of the president's strong commitment to social justice principles, as they understand it. What do you say to that?

REILLY: Yeah, I think the president's commitment to social justice ought to be applauded. However, when you honor an individual, you honor him in his entirety. You can't - you can't say we're honoring half of President Obama. And I certainly don't expect that Father Jenkins will stand up at the commencement and say that this honor is for certain aspects of what President Obama has done but we strongly disagree with others. That would be an insult.

You know, if - take an extreme case, and I'm not comparing the two individuals, but if you were to take a Klu Klux Klan member or a - you know, an Adolf Hitler and honor them for things that you think that they've done well, you can't separate the individual from their very public persona, which...

MARTIN: Do you really mean to compare out President Obama with Adolf Hitler?

REILLY: I just...

MARTIN: Or a Klu Klux Klan...

REILLY: And I don't.

MARTIN: Okay.

REILLY: I absolutely said I don't. What I'm saying is that you can't separate an honor for an individual from their very public actions, and President Obama in his first hundred days is much more identified with his support for abortion rights than he is for any for any social justice issues. That's - that's what he's acted upon and that has been his focus by his own decision.

MARTIN: Patrick Reilly is the president of the Cardinal Newman Society. He joined us from his home outside Washington, D.C. Mr. Reilly, thank you so much for speaking with us.

REILLY: Okay, thank you.

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