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Obama's Notre Dame visit sparks renewed abortion culture wars

May 1, 2009 |  6:04 am

The famous golden dome at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend Indiana where Democrat president Barack Obama is to make a controversial speech May 17

President Barack Obama's upcoming commencement speech to graduating students of the University of Notre Dame, scheduled for May 17, has become more than a fight over whether a president who favors legal abortion should be honored by a Roman Catholic university.

The occasion of the speech has morphed into one of many political sparks that we daresay are leading to a re-ignition of the semi-dormant culture wars.

Those clashes died down during the Bush administration when social conservatives were placated by having a friend in the Oval Office who could, with the stroke of a pen, keep them happy on issues such as stem cell research, the so-called global gag rule about abortion, and the "conscience rule," which George W. Bush signed before leaving office. Also, the conflagration in Iraq and an economy melting down kept attention focused elsewhere.

But now, with a pro-choice (and pro-embryonic stem cell research) president and Congress, and a push for gay marriage that is not going away, the embers of the culture wars are glowing bright.

Right now, Ground Zero is South Bend, Ind., home to Notre Dame. 

The resurgent antiabortion activist Randall Terry, who became a Catholic in....

... 2005, obtained a private list of names and addresses of Notre Dame alumni and sent them letters about Obama's visit, which ticked off a number of them, according to a story in the South Bend Tribune. Terry has promised to turn the event into a "circus."

So far, Catholics have had a muted response to the controversy. A new poll conducted by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life finds that most Catholics familiar with the issue support Notre Dame's decision to invite Obama to speak and receive an honorary degree.

However, the poll also found a deep division on the issue between Catholics who attend church often and those who don't. (Those who are more observant are less inclined to support Obama's appearance.)

The absence of a general backlash on the part of Catholics to Notre Dame's invitation to Obama should  probably not come as a surprise, given that most Catholics -- 54% --  voted for Obama in November and give him high approval ratings.

But at least one high-profile Catholic will boycott the event.

Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard law professor who served as U.S. ambassador to the Vatican under President George W. Bush, was to have been the 2009 recipient of the Laetare Medal, considered among the highest honors for an American Catholic. Notre Dame has bestowed the medal each year since 1883.

But Glendon has announced she will decline the award. In a written statement, she said that Notre Dame's decision to give an honorary degree to Obama violates a 2004 request by the U.S. Catholic bishops that Catholic institutions not honor " 'those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles.' "

"That request," wrote Glendon, "which in no way seeks to control or interfere with an institution’s freedom to invite and engage in serious debate with whomever it wishes, seems to me so reasonable that I am at a loss to understand why a Catholic university should disrespect it."

-- Robin Abcarian

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Photo: University of Notre Dame