INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The Roman Catholic bishop whose diocese includes the University of Notre Dame says he will boycott President Barack Obama's commencement speech at the Catholic school because Obama's policies on stem cell research and abortion run counter to church teaching.
Bishop John D'Arcy of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend said in a statement Tuesday that Obama's recent decision to federally fund embryonic stem cell research "has now placed in public policy ... his long-stated unwillingness to hold human life sacred."
"While claiming to separate politics from science, he has in fact separated science from ethics and has brought the American government, for the first time in history, into supporting direct destruction of innocent human life," D'Arcy said.
Obama has said the decision was aimed at easing human suffering.
The Rev. John Jenkins, Notre Dame's president, said Monday that the invitation for the May 17 event did not mean the university supports all of Obama's positions. A school spokesman, Dennis Brown, said he saw no circumstances under which it would rescind the invitation.
The White House issued a statement Tuesday saying Obama welcomes the "spirit of debate and healthy disagreement on important issues."
"While he is honored to have the support of millions of people of all faiths, including Catholics with their rich tradition of recognizing the dignity of people, he does not govern with the expectation that everyone sees eye to eye with him on every position," the statement said.
D'Arcy's boycott comes 25 years after former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo gave a speech at Notre Dame in which he argued that Catholic politicians like himself could oppose abortion without trying to outlaw it. Cuomo said bishops shouldn't try to make their anti-abortion sentiments the law of the land until they had convinced their own flocks to stop having abortions.
Besides the embryonic stem cell research funding policy, Obama has lifted restrictions on federal funding of international family planning groups that perform abortions or provide information about them. However, he has said his Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships would make it a priority to help reduce the abortion rate.
"As a Catholic University, Notre Dame must ask itself, if by this decision it has chosen prestige over truth," D'Arcy said.
Obama will be the ninth U.S. president to receive an honorary degree from Notre Dame and the 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.
D'Arcy announced his boycott on the same day that a spokesman said Evansville Bishop Gerald Gettelfinger would boycott Vanderburgh County Right to Life's annual dinner because keynote speaker and Republican National Chairman Michael Steele said in a recent magazine interview that abortion was "an individual choice." He later clarified that he opposes abortion and believes the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion should be overturned.
Gettelfinger said abortion opponents should remain unequivocal in stating those beliefs.
Diocese spokesman Paul Leingang said the bishop would break with recent practice and stay away from the April 16 banquet.
A message left by The Associated Press with a Republican National Committee spokesman seeking comment from Steele was not immediately returned.
Meanwhile in Washington, Obama defended his position on stem cell research during an evening news conference saying that lifting federal restrictions on embryonic stem cell research was the "right thing to do and the ethical thing to do."
The president said he wrestled with the ethics of the decision but is hopeful that the science will lead to help for people with debilitating diseases.
Obama issued an order earlier this month that lifted contentious Bush-era restraints on stem-cell research.
His move allows federally funded researchers to use hundreds of new embryonic stem cell lines for promising but long-range research in hopes of creating better treatments or cures for conditions ranging from diabetes to paralysis. In August 2001, then-President George W. Bush limited federal funding to 21 already existing stem cell lines because of "fundamental questions about the beginnings of life and the ends of science."
Obama said scientific consensus was not the only factor to consider.
"Look, I believe that it is very important for us to have strong moral guidelines, ethical guidelines, when it comes to stem-cell research or anything that touches on, you know, the issues of possible cloning or issues related to, you know, the human life sciences," Obama said at a prime-time news conference. "I think those issues are all critical, and I've said so before. I wrestle with it on stem cell; I wrestle with it on issues like abortion."
Still, Obama added of his stem cell decision: "I think that this was the right thing to do and the ethical thing to do."
Bush and his supporters said they were defending human life; days-old embryos — typically from fertility-clinic leftovers otherwise destined to be thrown away — are destroyed for the stem cells.
"I have no investment in causing controversy," Obama told reporters. "I'm happy to avoid it if that's where the science leads us. But what I don't want to do is predetermine this based on a very rigid ideological approach, and that's what I think is reflected in the executive order that I signed."