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Catholics astir over Obama's speech at Notre Dame

Opposition to his appearance at Sunday's commencement puts new attention on Catholic sensibilities – and on the president's stance on abortion and stem-cell research.

By Correspondent / May 15, 2009

In this May 1 photo, President Barack Obama arrives for a ceremony in the East Room of the White House. Since the president agreed to speak at Notre Dame's commencement, more than 353,000 people have signed an online petition demanding the university take back the offer.

Gerald Herbert/AP/File

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Landing the president of the United States as commencement speaker is like grabbing the brass ring on the graduation-day carousel – usually. But for the University of Notre Dame, President Obama’s scheduled appearance Sunday as commencement speaker has touched off a gargantuan flap among Roman Catholics, not only about his policies on abortion and embryonic stem-cell research, but also about the role religion should or should not play in political life.

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For a president who has taken care to embrace religious inclusivity, the vehement objections among some Catholics to his appearance at Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., would indicate that being included may not be enough to keep certain values voters in Mr. Obama’s column.

“He claims he tries to be inclusive, but that doesn’t extend to practicing Catholics,” says Susan Fani, director of communications at The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, calling the president “hostile to Catholic beliefs.” “Considering he has been in office for 100 days,” she adds, “we’re surprised at the pace that Catholic sensibilities have been offended repeatedly.”

A split among Catholics

The debate among Catholics over the president’s commencement role at the most high-profile Catholic university in the US has been heated, but it is, perhaps, not surprising. There is a well-documented political split between observant Catholics – those who attend services at least weekly – and Catholics who attend church less frequently, with the former tending to vote Republican and the latter up for grabs. In the last election, though, Obama won half the observant Catholics and more than two-thirds of less-observant worshippers.

“There’s been a lot of discussion in the community – apart from this flash point at Notre Dame – about how we engage people with different perspectives,” says the Rev. Donald Senior, president of Catholic Theological Union, a theology school in Chicago. “A lot of the Catholic community is conflicted” regarding Obama, says Father Senior, because his stance on issues like poverty and economic inequity parallels church teachings, while his support for abortion rights and embryonic stem-cell research does not.

He suggests that the church’s leaders today are grappling with how to present a public face of Catholicism in a way that resonates in a positive light rather than always appearing to be unyielding and “the church of no.”