By Kathleen Gilbert

SOUTH BEND, Indiana, May 13, 2009 ( – The president of the University of Notre Dame, Fr. John Jenkins, has issued a letter to graduates addressing the controversy that has exploded over the school’s invitation to President Obama to deliver this year’s commencement address and receive an honorary degree. In the letter Jenkins expresses his admiration for President Obama and his record.

“There is much to admire and celebrate in the life and work of President Obama,” wrote Fr. Jenkins.  “He’s a remarkable figure in American history and I look forward to welcoming him to Notre Dame.”

(To see full text of Fr. Jenkins’ letter:

The University has been the center of a firestorm of controversy, drawing criticism from 74 U.S. bishops and 360,000 petitioning Catholics, ever since it was announced that Obama would appear on campus for graduation on May 17. 

Instead of attending the official commencement ceremonies, pro-life graduating seniors protesting the invitation will attend a meditation led by Fr. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life in the university’s Grotto of Our Lady Lourdes.  A rally on Notre Dame’s South Quad, organized by ND Response and featuring several speakers, is expected to draw thousands of peaceful pro-life protesters. 

“The decision to invite President Obama to Notre Dame to receive an honorary degree and deliver the Commencement address has triggered debate,” wrote Fr. Jenkins in the letter to graduates dated May 11.  Jenkins noted that the debate has grown “heated,” even among some “who agree completely on Church teaching regarding the sanctity of human life, who agree completely that we should work for change – and differ only on how we should work for change.”

Saying that both he and the University are “unequivocally committed to the sanctity of human life,” Jenkins said he was “saddened” that those protesting the invitation “have suggested that our invitation to President Obama indicates ambiguity in our position on matters of Catholic teaching.”

“Notre Dame has a long custom of conferring honorary degrees on the President of the United States. It has never been a political statement or an endorsement of policy,” he said.  “As St. Peter wrote (I Pt. 2:17), we should honor the leader who upholds the secular order.”

Jenkins said that the Catholic university’s “special obligation not just to honor the leader, but to engage the culture” has “never been easy or without controversy.”

“The President’s visit to Notre Dame can help lead to broader engagement on issues of importance to the country and of deep significance to Catholics,” said the university president.

Jenkins concluded highlighted as especially admirable Obama’s “views and policies on immigration, expanding health care, alleviating poverty, and building peace through diplomacy have a deep residence with Catholic social teaching.” He added that, “As the first African-American holder of this office, he has accelerated our country’s progress in overcoming the painful legacy of slavery and segregation.”

“He’s a remarkable figure in American history and I look forward to welcoming him to Notre Dame.”

In the letter Fr. Jenkins does not criticize Obama for the extreme pro-abortion record that has led U.S. pro-life advocates to label him the “most pro-abortion” president in U.S. history.

Last month, Fr. Jenkins told the audience of a town hall meeting that Notre Dame is “tremendously proud” to honor Obama. 

Concerning the unprecedented backlash the decision drew, Jenkins said, “I think it’s unfortunate that the great event of President Obama coming to this campus has been a little clouded by that controversy.”

See related coverage:

ND President Jenkins: “We Are Tremendously Proud” to Honor Obama at Notre Dame


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