By Kathleen Gilbert

DETROIT, Michigan, April 14, 2009 ( – A prominent American canon lawyer has issued a stinging criticism of the reasoning given by Notre Dame’s president Fr. John Jenkins, by which he defends the school’s invitation of President Obama to speak and receive an honorary law degree, calling Jenkins’ argumentation “too bizarre for words.”

Canon lawyer Ed Peters responded to correspondence from Fr. Jenkins to Notre Dame trustees, which was obtained and published exclusively by last week.  In the memo, Jenkins told trustees that he considers the invitation to honor Obama to be faithful to the “letter and the spirit” of the U.S. Bishops Conference 2004 document “Catholics in Political Life.”  (

Several of the bishops who have condemned the scandal, including USCCB President Cardinal Francis George, have indicated that Notre Dame’s invitation violates the 2004 directive. The document forbids Catholic schools from honoring “those who act in defiance of our [Catholic] fundamental moral principles.”

Fr. Jenkins had written: “Because the title of the document is ‘Catholics in Political Life’, we understood this to refer to honoring Catholics whose actions are not in accord with our moral principles.”  Jenkins cited “fellow university presidents” who informed him “that their bishops have told them that in fact it is only Catholic politicians who are referred to in this document.”

In response, Peters commented on his blog “In the Light of the Law” on Thursday: “Is the man serious?”

“Does Jenkins really think that Catholic bishops would countenance a Catholic institution honoring a philanthropic murderer, or a free-speech crusading pornographer, or a right-to-privacy pimp, provided merely that the awardee was not a Catholic?

“Really, that’s too bizarre for words.”

Peters also questioned Jenkins’ statement that his interpretation “was supported by canon lawyers we consulted, who advised us that, by definition, only Catholics who implicitly recognize the authority of Church teaching can act in ‘defiance’ of it.” 

“What’s this ‘by definition’ stuff? … A definition of ‘defiance’?” Peters asked.  “The word ‘defiance’ is not in the Code. Even the Latin pertinacia does not seem to apply to our facts, so, what exactly is Jenkins talking about here?

“I don’t know, but whatever Jenkins or his canonists hope it means, the sentence he/they put so much stock in was obviously not drafted to stand up to close textual parsing,” he said.  “Else, all a Catholic would have to do to avoid the charge of acting in ‘defiance’ of Church authority would be to decline recognizing Church authority in the first place!”

To Jenkins’ assertion that giving Obama an honorary doctorate does not “suggest support” for his pro-abortion record, Peters countered, “An honorary doctorate of law does not ‘suggest’ support for a politicians’ legal philosophy, no, instead it screams it.”

(To view Dr. Peters’ full commentary:

See recent coverage:

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