SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Jimmy Carter came to Notre Dame in 1977. So did Ronald Reagan in 1981 and George W. Bush in 2001.
The University of Notre Dame has a tradition of inviting new presidents to speak at graduation. But this year’s selection of President Barack Obama has been met by a barrage of criticism that has left some students fearing their commencement ceremony will turn into a circus.
Many Catholics are angered by Obama’s planned appearance at the May 17 ceremony because of his decisions to provide federal funding for embryonic stem cell research and international family planning groups that provide abortions or educate about the procedure.
The consensus Thursday on the campus of the nation’s most-prominent Catholic university was that any president should be welcomed at Notre Dame.
“People are definitely entitled to their outrage, but I think the main thing is to see that it’s an honor to have the president of the United States come to speak here whether you agree with him or not,” said Katie Woodward, a political science junior from Philadelphia.
Justin Mack, a senior film major from Dallas, agreed.
“I didn’t vote for him and there are a lot of things I don’t agree with him or support. But I feel like for this event people need to put that aside,” said Mack, a senior film major from Dallas. “My hope is that doesn’t distract too much from what the weekend is about, which is the graduation.”
But the distractions have been mounting, including sharply worded letters from two bishops. Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of the Phoenix Diocese on Wednesday called Obama’s selection a “public act of disobedience” and “a grave mistake.” On Tuesday, Bishop John D’Arcy of the Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese, which includes Notre Dame, said he would not attend the ceremony because of Obama’s policies.
Hundreds of people on both sides of the issue have sent letters to the student newspaper, and a coalition of conservative student groups has announced its opposition.
University spokesman Dennis Brown says Notre Dame does not plan to rescind the invitation. Anyone associated with the university can recommend a commencement speaker, he said, and the president consults with university officers to see who would be most appropriate.
Notre Dame President the Rev. John Jenkins has said the university does not condone all of Obama’s policies but that it’s important to engage in conversation.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Thursday that Obama believes everyone has the right to express their opinion, saying the president met last week with Chicago Cardinal Francis George and others to discuss topics Obama and the Catholic church are interested in.
“He looks forward to continuing that dialogue in the leadup to the commencement, and looks forward to delivering the address in May,” Gibbs said.
Bob Reish, the student body president and a graduating senior, said there is a “general excitement” about Obama’s visit, although he is aware there are people on both sides of the issue.
As of 2 p.m. Thursday, The Observer, the student newspaper, had received 612 letters about Obama’s appearance — 313 from alumni and 299 from current students.
Seventy percent of the alumni letters opposed having Obama giving the speech, while 73 percent of student letters supported his appearance. Among the 95 seniors who wrote letters, 97 percent supported the president’s invitation.
Sophomore Kelsey Fletcher, a Japanese major from nearby Elkhart, said she doesn’t think the university should have invited Obama to speak.
“He shouldn’t be giving the commencement address because of his policies, but once you invite him you can’t disinvite him,” she said. “That would be rude.”
Others noted that Obama is only speaking at three universities this year.
“We can’t just forgive his viewpoints, we can’t just let it go without expressing our thoughts on it,” said Thomas Heitker, a freshman biology major from Columbus, Ohio. “But he’s only speaking at three universities this year and to be one out of so many is something we should be proud about.”
Chris Carrington, a political science major from the Chicago area, said he doesn’t see how Obama’s appearance at Notre Dame contradicts Catholic values.
“To not allow someone here because of their beliefs seems a little hypocritical and contradictory to what the mission of the university and church should be,” he said.