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The Controversy at Notre Dame

Bishop George Murray
Bishop of Youngstown, OH

Published by The Catholic Exponent
Diocese of Youngstown, OH

April 3, 2009

The recent announcement by Notre Dame University that President Barack Obama would be this year’s commencement speaker and receive an honorary degree has generated a substantial amount of comment. At root is the request made by the American Catholic bishops some years ago to the presidents of Catholic colleges and universities that they not give a platform to or honor those persons who took public positions contrary to the teaching of the Church.

The protection and defense of all human life from conception to natural death is both a fundamental and essential tenet of our faith. As Pope John Paul II wrote in his encyclical, The Gospel of Life, because of the teachings found in the Scriptures and the example of Jesus Christ, we as Catholics have an “inescapable responsibility of choosing to be unconditionally pro-life.”
While I greatly respect the office of President of the United States and the historic achievement of Mr. Obama, his polices to date have not recognized the intrinsic value of the life of the unborn. In politics, one cannot functionally separate a politician from his polices. Mr. Obama’s policies of expanding the availability of abortion at home and exporting that availability overseas have demonstrated that he does not believe that the life of the unborn is very important. As a result, I cannot but be deeply disturbed by the decision made by the president and board of Notre Dame.

Notre Dame is a Catholic university. Universities are places where there is a free exchange of ideas for the purpose of learning. Notre Dame is also a Catholic university, which means that its intellectual foundation is built on fundamental moral principles. Remove those moral principles and you remove the word “Catholic” from an organization’s self-definition.

As a Catholic university and the premier Catholic university in the nation, Notre Dame should be in the forefront of protecting all human life in word and deed. It is not sufficient for the university’s administration to issue a statement that they do not agree with President Obama’s positions on life issues while at the same time giving him an opportunity to stand before the graduates and receive a prestigious honorary degree. That is the contradiction Notre Dame has failed to resolve and what, I believe, is at the heart of this controversy.

Notre Dame is a great university. Mr. Obama has done much to be commended, especially in his genuine concern for the poor and needy among us. Since Mr. Obama probably will be the graduation speaker, I hope and pray that the leadership of the university, its president and chair of the board, will seize this opportunity to help the President to see the inalienable right to life of every human being and invite him to courageously defend that right along with us as we journey On the Road to Jerusalem.

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