SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Ten priests from the order that founded the University of Notre Dame say the school risks its "true soul" and could distance itself from the Roman Catholic Church by inviting President Barack Obama to campus next month.
The members of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, which helps run the university, asked the Rev. John Jenkins, the Holy Cross priest who is Notre Dame's president, and the university's board of fellows to reconsider the invitation to Obama because he supports abortion rights.
"Failure to do so will damage the integrity of the institution," said the letter published Wednesday in Notre Dame Observer.
Notre Dame announced last month that Obama would deliver the university's May 17 commencement address and receive an honorary degree. The decision by the nation's best-known Catholic university sparked widespread anger among many Catholics who said Notre Dame should not honor someone whose policies on abortion and embryonic stem-cell research clash with core church teachings on human life.
Hundreds of abortion opponents protested on campus Sunday, and the priests said the invitation has opened a "fissure" between Notre Dame and many bishops. More than a dozen bishops have denounced Obama's appearance, including Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Jenkins has said the university does not condone all of Obama's policies, and spokesman Dennis Brown has said Notre Dame does not plan to rescind the invitation.
"We respect the opinions of members of the Holy Cross community and others," Brown said.
Obama would be the ninth U.S. president to receive an honorary degree from Notre Dame and sixth sitting president to address graduates. Other commencement speakers have included Dwight Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush.
Cecilia Prinster, president of the Notre Dame Alumni Association, noted in a column also published in the campus newspaper that Obama's policies in areas such as health care reform, economic security and environmental stewardship are in line with Catholic social teaching.
"Although we disagree with Mr. Obama on some core issues, we must not condemn," Prinster wrote.
Four days before his Notre Dame speech, Obama is set to deliver a much less controversial commencement address at Arizona State University. But the public school in Tempe is denying the president something he's getting at South Bend: an honorary degree.
"It's our practice to recognize an individual for his body of work, somebody who's been in their position for a long time," Sharon Keeler, an ASU spokeswoman, told The Associated Press. "His body of work is yet to come. That's why we're not recognizing him with a degree at the beginning of his presidency."
Recent recipients of honorary degrees at ASU include J. Craig Venter, an internationally known scientist credited for developing high-volume genome sequencing, and Wu Qidi, vice minister of education of the People's Republic of China.
The university's policy is different from the one at Notre Dame, where Brown said it's customary to confer a degree on every guest speaker.