Mississippi bishop opposes Obama commencement speech

TUPELO – The bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Jackson is joining the opposition to the University of Notre Dame’s decision to invite President Barack Obama to speak at its May graduation.
The Most Rev. Joseph Latino said he is composing a letter to the Rev. John Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president, about the apparent incongruity of a “pro-choice” president speaking at “one of the premier Catholic universities in the country, one dedicated to Mary our Mother (Notre Dame).”
Latino, who gave the Daily Journal a preview of the letter, said he feels the university has sacrificed the church’s teaching concerning the sacredness of life for the distinction of having the nation’s first African-American president speak at its commencement.
Obama was invited to speak last month after U.S. Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., canceled. The university also plans to give the president an honorary doctorate of law degree.
Latino joins a number of Catholic bishops who have voiced their objections, including the Most Rev. John D’Arcy, bishop of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, where Notre Dame is located.
Latino, who has publicly praised Obama’s commitment to social justice, said some of the president’s recent choices promote “a culture of death as opposed to a culture of life.”
He cited Obama’s signing of a bill that would provide federal funding for stem-cell research on “aborted babies” and his promising to sign into law the Freedom of Choice Act.
But opposition to the university’s invitation hasn’t come only from Catholics.
Dr. Kenn Beeman, a senior physician with the Mississippi Department of Health, said that as a doctor and a man of faith he’s deeply disappointed.
“Few things are considered by Christians to be more bedrock than a pro-life position,” said Beeman, a Presbyterian whose son graduated from Notre Dame in 2005.
Beeman said many Christians have looked to the Catholic Church as the “single, continuous thread of opposition to abortion since ‘Roe v Wade.’”
By conferring upon Obama the honorary degree, Beeman said, Notre Dame has “gone beyond tolerance, to sanctioning.”
However, according to William Lawhead, chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at the University of Mississippi, Notre Dame’s invitation should not be seen as an endorsement of all the president’s policies.
“The invitation is not an imprimatur,” said Lawhead. “You can’t expect that every speaker is going to be completely pure by all your moral and ideological criteria.”
Lawhead added that although he understands that abortion is the ultimate moral issue for some, he’s confident that the president will have “a lot to say to that student body that will be inspiring and of interest.”
While Catholic and conservative Protestant churches favor outlawing abortion, several of the more theologically liberal “mainline” denominations, such as Obama’s United Church of Christ, regard abortion as a serious moral issue but believe it should not be illegal.
Will Jemison, director of black Catholic ministry for the Diocese of Jackson, said this isn’t the first time Notre Dame has invited a sitting president to speak whose policies in certain areas conflict with Catholic teaching.
In 2001 President George W. Bush was the keynote speaker. Jemison pointed out that the Catholic Church strongly opposes the death penalty and, during Bush’s tenure as governor of Texas, he oversaw the execution of 152 criminals. Obama will be sixth sitting president to deliver the commencement.
Jemison, who strongly disagrees with Obama about abortion, said he hopes the president will come away from the experience with a deeper, perhaps a more sympathetic understanding of the Catholic position.
“Notre Dame is among the finest schools in the world,” said Jemison. “This controversy, this scrutiny is probably healthy because, like the Catholic Church, the university should demand the best of everybody.”

Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or galen.holley@djournal.com

Galen Holley/Daily Journal

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