President Obama heads to Notre Dame on Sunday to receive an honorarydegree and deliver the commencement address. Conservative Catholicshave opposed the university’s awarding of a degree to the President,whose views on abortion and stem cell research conflict with theteachings of the church. Their intolerance has provoked a backlash andmade this cohort even more Catholic than the pope! As Washington Postcolumnist E.J. Dionne pointed out, “To the dismay of many conservatives,the Vatican’s own newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, offered what oneantiabortion Catholic blog called ‘a surprisingly positive assessment ofthe new President’s approach to life issues’.” The reaction was sopositive that a spokesman for the National Right to Life Commiteecriticized Pope Benedict XVI’s newspaper!

Furthermore, two-thirds of Catholics approve of Obama’s performance inoffice and, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll, 50 percent of Catholics think Notre Dame was right to invite the President.

But Mary Ann Glendon, the Learned Hand professor of law at Harvard LawSchool, has chosen to become the first person in the 133-year historyof Notre Dame to accept its prestigious Laetare Medal–and then rejectit–because she argues the invitation to President Obama violates a 2004decree by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops that Catholicinstitutions should not honor those who act “in defiance of ourfundamental moral principles.”

Isn’t this a moment when Catholic universities need to be reminded ofthe importance of uninhibited debate and free inquiry? I believe theattempt to have Notre Dame disinvite Obama is an example of the impulseto censor dissenting views in an environment that should welcome them.It is interesting, and somewhat hopeful, that Notre Dame’s newspaper,The Observer, reports that most students on campus support allowingPresident Obama to speak and receive the degree, while much of theopposition is from alumni.

As to Professor Glendon, I find it supremely hypocritical that shedid not have the same reaction when the University invited PresidentGeorge W. Bush to speak. The Church is just as opposed to capitalpunishment as it is to abortion. Yet President Bush (as Governor ofTexas), oversaw more executions than any Governor, and subsequentlyPresident, in American history.

For another reasoned and enlightened view of the Professor’s”deliberate insult” to the President of the United States, see my(Catholic) father’s letter:

May 11, 2009

The Honorable Mary Ann Glendon
Professor of Law
Harvard Law School
Cambridge, MA

Dear Ambassador Glendon:

Because I am such an admirer of your book, A World Made New, because Iadmire your erudition and compassion as expressed in your teaching ofhuman rights, I was disappointed to read of your decision to reject theLaetare Medal presented at Notre Dame University because of yourdisagreement with the University regarding the award of an honorarydegree to President Obama. This is especially sad for those of us whoshare your faith to see such a significant force in Catholic thinkingcontribute to the harsh divide in America, especially at a time when warand economic crisis require support of a President who is making avaliant effort to reach out beyond partisan identification to all of ourfellow citizens. For those who value life, it was difficult tounderstand why the Bishops in America did not make a statement insupport of Pope John Paul II when he denounced the Iraq War as immoraland pleaded with our government not to engage in a belligerency thatultimately has cost us so much. The Notre Dame statement that causedyou concern seemed to me to be right on the mark in terms of what ourcountry should be doing–having the President see our graduates, meetour leaders, and listen to Mary Ann Glendon–especially importantbecause we have “a listening” President, who I am sure would be informedand educated by what you have to say.

It is interesting to me that you had no trouble accepting an appointmentas Ambassador from an administration that was so egregious in itsviolation of International Law, for example, in the field of humanrights, and yet you would go out of your way to insult a President whois so clearly making an effort to bring Americans together and to findcommon ground even on an issue as divisive as abortion, the right tolife, and freedom of choice. The distinction of the Laetare Medal willbe dimmed by your rejection, and our Church will not be enriched by yourdeliberate insult to the President of the United States.

Sincerely,

William J. vanden Heuvel