By Kathleen Gilbert

NOTRE DAME, Indiana, April 8, 2009 ( – has obtained a copy of University of Notre Dame President Fr. John Jenkins’ commentary on the U.S. Bishops Conference (USCCB) document, “Catholics in the Political Life,” which was sent to Notre Dame’s Board of Trustees at the beginning of this month. In the commentary Jenkins explains how he believes that the university’s invitation of President Obama to be this year’s commencement speaker and receive an honorary law degree is in keeping with the “letter and the spirit” of the recommendations included in the USCCB document.

The USCCB issued “Catholics in Political Life” in 2004. The document directs Catholic schools not to honor pro-abortion politicians. Many of the 29 bishops who have so far spoken out against the scandal, including Notre Dame’s Bishop John D’Arcy and USCCB President Cardinal Francis George, have indicated that the school’s invitation to President Obama to speak at commencement and receive an honorary law degree was in violation of the bishops’ directive. (To view the USCCB document, go to:

The following is the complete text of Jenkins’ commentary:

In June 2004, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement, “Catholics in Political Life.” A number of people have quoted this document with regard to Notre Dame’s invitation to President Obama to be its Commencement Speaker and receive an honorary degree. Our interpretation of this document is different from the one that has been imposed by those criticizing us, and I wanted to explain our understanding.

The 2004 document was clearly adopted by the Bishops as provisional. As the document says, “[h]aving received an extensive report from the Task Force on Catholic Bishops and Catholic Politicians, and looking forward to the full report, we highlight several points from the interim report that suggest some directions for our effortsâEUR¦.” Nevertheless, despite its provisional character, this document has been used by all the people at Notre Dame who recommend speakers for commencement or others for honorary degrees since its publication. We have tried to follow both the letter and the spirit of its recommendations.

Two key sentences of the document have been frequently quoted regarding the invitation to President Obama:

“Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.”

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. This 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. Moreover, fellow university presidents have told me that their bishops have told them that in fact it is only Catholic politicians who are referred to in this document.

In addition, regardless of how one interprets the first sentence, the second is also important. It reads: “They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions. [My italics]” In every statement I have made about the invitation of President Obama and in every statement I will make, I express our disagreement with him on issues surrounding the protection of life, such as abortion and embryonic stem cell research. If we repeatedly and clearly state that we do not support the President on these issues, we cannot be understood to “suggest support”.

Finally, the document states that “we need to do more to persuade all people that human life is precious and human dignity must be defended. This requires more effective dialogue and engagement with all public officialsâEUR¦.” However misguided some might consider our actions, it is in the spirit of providing a basis for dialogue that we invited President Obama.

On May 17 we will welcome the ninth President who will receive an honorary degree from Notre Dame. It will be an important opportunity to bring the leader of our nation to Notre Dame, and, I hope, a joyful day for our graduates and their families.

Fr. John Jenkins, C.S.C.