The University of Notre Dame's invitation for President Barack Obama to speak at commencement Sunday is an opportunity to broaden the debate on issues important to Roman Catholics, not a step at odds with church teaching, the school's president said in a letter to graduates.
"Ultimately, I hope that the conversations and the goodwill that come from this day will contribute to closer relations between Catholics and public officials who make decisions on matters of human life and human dignity," the Rev. John Jenkins said in the letter, dated Monday and first reported Wednesday on a blog of the Jesuit monthly America.
Some 70 U.S. bishops and many other Catholics have condemned Notre Dame's decision to have Obama deliver the commencement address and receive an honorary degree, saying Catholic teaching stands in stark opposition to the president's policies on abortion and embryonic stem cell research.
Others, however, have defended Notre Dame's decision in keeping with its recent tradition of inviting U.S. presidents to speak at commencement and engaging public leaders. They include 24 theologians and other scholars who signed a letter released Thursday in support of the Obama invitation.
Jenkins wrote that Obama's visit "can help lead to broader engagement on issues of importance to the country and of deep significance to Catholics."
He said many of those who support the Obama invitation and those opposing it "agree completely on church teaching regarding the sanctity of human life" but differ on how to work for change in public policy.
"I am saddened that many friends of Notre Dame have suggested that our invitation to President Obama indicates ambiguity in our position on matters of Catholic teaching. The university and I are unequivocally committed to the sanctity of human life," Jenkins said.
Notre Dame's custom of giving honorary degrees to presidents "has never been a political statement or an endorsement of policy" but rather an expression of respect, Jenkins said. He cited St. Peter, whom Catholics consider the first bishop of Rome, in saying Christians should honor public leaders.
Jenkins also said his widely admired predecessor, the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, considered Catholic universities to have a duty to serve as a "crossroads through which pass people of many different perspectives, backgrounds, faiths, and cultures."
The invitation to Obama has come under sharp criticism by bishops including Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and John D'Arcy, whose Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend includes the Notre Dame campus.
D'Arcy has said the invitation has "scandalized many Catholics and other people of goodwill" and divided Notre Dame from many bishops and other Catholics.
The invitation has brought demonstrations and other protests against the invitation to the campus, and they will continue through Sunday's ceremony.
John Daly, a spokesman for the protest group ND Response, said this week he expected 20 to 30 graduating seniors to skip commencement and attend a prayer vigil instead.
The letter supporting Notre Dame that was released Thursday gathered signatures of Catholic theologians and academics including Lisa Cahill of Boston College and Douglas Kmiec, a former Reagan administration lawyer with a long record of opposing abortion but who also endorsed Obama in the election last year.
The letter warned history did not side with "those who seek to disrupt these joyous proceedings or to divide the Church for narrow political advantage."
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