Caps and frowns

Education | Notre Dame students lead the fight against awarding an honorary degree to Barack Obama

Issue: "Geo-gizmos," April 25, 2009

Jon Buttaci's father was looking forward to his son's graduation: When the elder Buttaci graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1981, President Ronald Reagan delivered the commencement address at the famed Roman Catholic university in Indiana. When the younger Buttaci graduates from Notre Dame next month, President Barack Obama will deliver the speech. But the graduating senior from Raleigh, N.C., says he and his father won't be there: "I've decided not to risk scandal."

Buttaci and other Catholics say Obama's upcoming Notre Dame address-and the school's plans to award the president an honorary law degree-are scandalous for one reason: the president's strong support for legal abortion, a position that's anathema to Catholic teaching. School officials say the president's visit isn't an endorsement of his abortion views, and many students support the visit.

Commencement wars aren't new: Controversies over graduation speakers sprout each spring. And Catholic support for Obama isn't new: The president won the Catholic vote by 9 percentage points in November.

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But the growing protest on the Notre Dame campus is notable for at least one reason: It's nearly entirely student-led. While a handful of professors have decried the invitation, most have remained silent. And while one Catholic cardinal and four Catholic bishops have also criticized Notre Dame's decision-and more than 245,000 people have signed an online petition from an outside Catholic group asking Notre Dame to rescind the invitation-most on-campus opposition comes from a growing band of students who say they're often more conservative than their professors.

At least 12 Notre Dame student groups representing hundreds of students formed a coalition called NDResponse to ask the school to refrain from awarding an honorary degree to Obama. (The group says it would be disrespectful to rescind the invitation to speak since the president has already accepted, but that the school could withhold a degree that it hasn't yet awarded.)

Greer Hannan, a senior and executive editor of the Irish Rover, an independent school newspaper supporting NDResponse, says the honorary degree is "a dishonor" to Notre Dame. She points to pro-abortion policies already enacted by the president: "Really a Catholic school should be pointing out that his work in the law is reprehensible in some ways."

Hannan isn't surprised that students are leading opposition efforts. Though she says she received "excellent information" in her studies, she adds: "I would say that the student body is more Catholic than the faculty."

NDResponse spokesman John Daly says a left-leaning faculty was just one battle that conservative students fought during his years at Notre Dame. (Daly graduated in 2008.) He says they also unsuccessfully fought on-campus performances of The Vagina Monologues and the annual Queer Film Festival. When it comes to Obama's invitation, he says: "It's been a war and this is just a new battle."

University spokesman Dennis Brown said the school has expressed its disagreement with the president over issues like abortion and embryonic stem-cell research, but he added: "We're honoring him for the causes we share." Those causes include fighting poverty and ending the war.

Small wars have erupted on other college campuses over commencement speakers this spring: Conservative Ben Stein backed out of speaking at the University of Vermont after intense criticism over his support for intelligent design theory.

Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., a Catholic, suddenly withdrew last month as commencement speaker at the Catholic St. Vincent College. Casey didn't explain the decision, but the withdrawal came after a strong reprimand from Scranton Bishop Joseph Martino over Casey's opposition to an amendment aimed at reinstating the pro-life Mexico City policy.

And gay rights groups are protesting former eBay CEO Meg Whitman's upcoming address at UCLA's business school. Whitman supported Proposition 8-which upheld traditional marriage in California.

For Buttaci-the Notre Dame senior from Raleigh-the decision to skip graduation was "hard but quick." He will spend the hour at a separate location on campus with his family and other students. He says the gathering will likely include a Mass and a pro-life speaker and adds: "I've grown stronger in my faith for having to fight."

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the political beat and other topics as national editor for WORLD Magazine. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.


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