Turmoil Surrounds Commencement Weekend at Notre Dame | WBEZ
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Turmoil Surrounds Commencement Weekend at Notre Dame

Some graduating seniors are staying away from commencement exercises this weekend at the University of Notre Dame. That's because the school—in South Bend, Indiana, about 90 minutes east of Chicago—has invited President Barack Obama to be the keynote speaker. The nation's most famous Catholic university is now taking some heat because of the President's support for abortion which many Catholics oppose. The controversy is setting the stage for a clash of ideals come Sunday.

On Tuesday night a small group of Notre Dame students gathers near the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, a popular spot on campus.

Surrounded by lit candles, the grotto is a place for prayer and meditation.  This particular group of students has come to pray for President Obama and for the university. 

ambi of prayer for Obama and Notre Dame

They are praying for President Obama to change his stance on supporting abortion. Theology and philosophy major student Michelle Sagala is from southwest Michigan. She will put on her cap and gown Sunday but won't attend commencement exercises because of the president's appearance.

SAGALA: It seems inappropriate because of his policies which goes so much against the Catholic teachings on the sanctity of human life especially embryonic stem cell research and abortion. This is the kind of thing that Notre Dame has prepared me for to take a stand for my faith and what matters to me.

There's no official count but student organizers say as many as 50 seniors may end up skipping commencement.

John Daly graduated from Notre Dame last year. He's part of a group called ND Response, a coalition of nearly a dozen anti-abortion groups. They've been leading protest on campus.

DALY: Notre Dame has always been that school that I wanted to get into. And now looking back I feel as though it's betrayed itself like a good friend betrays another friend. This decision in some ways makes it seem that Notre Dame doesn't want to be the thing that it has been for the last 159 years.

Not everyone at Notre Dame feels this way. There are many Catholics here who don't agree with the president's stance on abortion. But they still support his invitation to speak and be honored.

WILKINSON: This is an opportunity for dialogue and that is not inherently problematic to honor somebody who has in fact done a lot of incredible things that are in line with what the Catholic Church believes and teaches.

That's Kelly Wilkinson who says the controversy has the potential to spoil her graduation day.

She's not so worried about fellow students who will stay away from commencement. She respects them. But she is upset with those who are using this commencement to elevate the battle over abortion, this on a campus that is known for gridiron battles and Touchdown Jesus.

APPLEBY: You probably couldn't find two more dramatic icons than the White House and the University of Notre Dame if you wanted to stage a drama about Catholicism versus the current incumbent of the White House.

That's Notre Dame history professor Scott Appleby. He says President Obama is one of a long line of sitting U.S. presidents to speak at commencement.

And Obama is popular among many Catholics; 54 percent of them voted for him in last fall's election.

There has been some tension on campus between students and faculty over Obama's visit here. But Appleby says right now the trouble is coming from:

APPLEBY: Outsiders, people are not part of the Notre Dame faculty or student body for that matter, who have literally have bused people in from the prolife movement around the country to stir things up.

ambi: Sean Hannity show tape

Anti-abortion protestors have picketed outside the gates of Notre Dame and more than 20 arrests have been made, including Alan Keyes, a former presidential candidate who also opposed Obama for the Illinois Senate seat several years ago. Now Keyes is making the rounds on conservative talk programs, like this one on the Sean Hannity Show:

ambi: Sean Hannity show tape

Keyes, who is Catholic, insists he has the right to get involved.

KEYES: We're not outsiders. If the students don't understand their responsibility to the body of Christ and the faith community, they haven't been property educated. And for this too, Jenkins and the officials at Notre Dame need to be called to account. What are they doing?

A handful of Catholic leaders have also strongly denounced Notre Dame's decision. Here in South Bend, local bishop John D'Arcy says he doesn't plan on attending commencement. 

Notre Dame President Rev. John Jenkins issued a statement that the university is delighted to have President Obama at the school. Jenkins adds that the school does not support all of the president's decisions, specifically his support of abortion, but that the visit is the basis for further positive engagement. 

The university will allow seniors not participating in commencement to attend a prayer service on campus on Sunday instead.

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