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The Real Idea of a University

When President Obama speaks to the new graduates at Notre Dame on Sunday, he will do so knowing that the vast majority of Catholics support him being there.
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On Sunday, President Obama will become the sixth US president to give the commencement address at Notre Dame and the ninth to be awarded an honorary degree. When President Obama was invited by the University of Notre Dame to deliver the 2009 commencement address and receive an honorary law degree both the university and the White House must have expected to take some flak. They may however have been taken aback by the vitriol that has erupted from a small but committed coterie of protesters.

Largely, Catholics on campus and around the nation welcome the decision. A poll of Catholics by the Pew Research Center showed that, of those expressing an opinion, 64 percent favor the invitation. And voxpop polls by a variety of news sources have found that students are very much in favor of the invitation. Who wouldn't want the president to deliver their commencement speech, whatever one's political beliefs? Indeed many students and commentators have expressed serious reservations about the protests by ultraconservative opponents.

That has not stopped those opposed to the president's policies on reproductive rights from orchestrating a series of stunts to draw attention to their unpopular cause. To be fair, it is probably not just the president's reproductive rights policies they object to. They probably don't agree with his policy towards North Korea or indeed what he eats for breakfast.

In some ways, it is a little difficult to understand the furor. President Obama's approach to social justice issues very much mirrors that of the Catholic church. He is working towards an end to the conflict in Iraq. He wants to develop an equitable and affordable national health-care system. He has advocated for policies that will reduce the need for abortion. He wants to mitigate the impact of the recession on the poor. All things that the Catholic church supports. Therefore it is unsurprising that Catholics, who like all Americans place abortion very low down on their list of electoral priorities, have been among President Obama's biggest supporters. The majority of Catholics (54 percent) voted for candidate Obama in November, and he continues to have high approval ratings from Catholics six months on.

It is also worth noting that campaigns against speakers at Catholic universities are waged unevenly. In ­­­­­­­­­2001, President George W. Bush made the commencement address at Notre Dame. Even though the former president ignored Catholic teaching on the death penalty and other social justice issues, conservative Catholics were not found protesting his presence. In 2006, Boston College, another Catholic university, awarded an honorary degree to Condoleezza Rice, who worked in an administration that used torture and waged wars that the Vatican had condemned on several occasions. The conservative lobby was mute again.

The loudest opponents of President Obama share one thing in common, a self-aggrandizing obsession with placing themselves in the limelight. The campaign is orchestrated by a marginal, single-issue organization called the Cardinal Newman Society whose leader Patrick Reilly has spent the last 15 years trying to force the nation's 224 Catholic universities to conform to his views of what a Catholic university should look like. He is joined by self-promoting individuals like Randall Terry, who is willing to force a senior Vatican official into a humiliating apology to fellow bishops so that he can get himself some column inches, and Frank Pavone, who places his own face on his antiabortion billboards and for whom the term hagiographic was coined. Bringing up the rear is the bloviator-in-chief, Bill Donohue of the Catholic League, who has mastered the art of playground bully, about 50 years after he left school.

Their concerns about the impact President Obama is having are easy to understand. Conservatives are running scared. Noting their loss of influence on lay Catholic opinion on a whole host of issues, they have been forced to seek to shut down debate and silence the views of those with whom they disagree in a futile attempt to enforce their unpopular ideologies by decree. They have failed.

President Obama has started to take the heat out of the abortion debate by focusing on the needs of women and their families and proposing policies that will reduce the need for abortion. Ultraconservative antichoice campaigners want to wage a permanent war over abortion marked by overblown rhetoric and straw men, such as their campaign against the non-existent Freedom of Choice Act. But even they must see that Americans want to move away from such stunts and endless debate and towards policies that respect the right of women and their families to make decisions about the issues that affect their lives.

So, when President Obama speaks to the new graduates on Sunday, he will do so knowing that the vast majority of Catholics will be interested in what he has to say and support him being there. The 54 percent of Catholics who voted for him in the 2008 election did not do so unthinkingly. They did so knowing that the Obama administration would work to promote the policies that they themselves support, around health care, social justice and minimizing the impact of the economic crisis on those it has hurt most.

Jon O'Brien is the president of Catholics for Choice.

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