By Kathleen Gilbert
SOUTH BEND, Indiana, January 6, 2010 (LifeSiteNews.com) - The unprecedented controversy that rent the U.S. Catholic community over President Obama's abortion-themed commencement speech and his reception of an honorary law degree at the University of Notre Dame last May has apparently not fazed the school's president, who called the climax of the scandal "a successful" day that he does not regret.
When asked in a South Bend Tribune interview published December 27 whether he would do it all over again, Notre Dame president Fr. John Jenkins answered, "Yes, I would."
"He is the president of the United States, and there was a tradition of Notre Dame inviting presidents to be commencement speakers and receive honorary degrees, and we continue that tradition," he said. Jenkins went on to point out the historicity of Obama as the nation's first black president, saying it was "an honor for us to welcome him to campus."
"For all the controversy, I think it was a successful day," he said.
The decision to host the President at the Catholic university sparked an immense outpouring of criticism in the weeks leading up to the speech, with 80 active U.S. bishops and over 360,000 petitioners opposed to the decision.
"It’s important not to be afraid of controversies. If the issues are addressed with reason and respect, that’s the best you can do. And universities, particularly, should be places where controversy can be addressed with reason and mutual respect," Jenkins said. He insisted that "there were things in [Obama's] life and his leadership that we could affirm." Regarding areas of disagreement, especially the President’s enthusiastic support for abortion, the day allowed an opportunity to "speak about those differences openly."
"I thought he said things that he’d never said before on the issue of abortion — such as seeking a reasonable conscience clause, such as reducing the number of abortions — and I think it was a day when there was genuine dialogue among people who differed. And that’s really what a university is about," he said.
However, there is a group of individuals who have reason not to be completely satisfied by Jenkins’ words about the need for “genuine dialogue": the 88 pro-life individuals who were arrested on campus May 17 while protesting President Obama are still facing up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine on charges of trespassing. While witnesses say pro-Obama protesters were allowed to roam free, the arrested individuals were singled out for displaying any pro-life message - including slogans on the sanctity of life, a large wooden cross, and images of Mary.
Fr. Jenkins has denied pleas from several corners to request that the charges be dropped - a request lawyers say the St. Joseph county prosecutor would likely heed. Fr. Weslin, one of the 88 arrested, called on his fellow priest in June to dialogue over the scandal - a request Jenkins ignored.
Notre Dame law professor emeritus Charles Rice called Jenkins' pursuit of token pro-life initiatives a "mockery" while he allowed the protesters to continue facing charges.
"It would be a mockery for you to present yourself now at the March, even at the invitation of Notre Dame students, as a pro-life advocate while, in practical effect, you continue to be the jailer, as common criminals, of those persons who were authentic pro-life witnesses at Notre Dame," wrote Rice in a September letter to Fr. Jenkins.
In the Tribune interview, Jenkins also touched upon his relationship with the local ordinary, Fort Wayne-South Bend bishop John D'Arcy, who took the unusual step of boycotting the commencment exercises, and instead showed up at a smaller ceremony held by Notre Dame graduates protesting the invitation elsewhere on campus. The Notre Dame president has met with D’Arcy several times since the event, he said, and they remain at loggerheads. He says he has not discussed the issue with Bishop Kevin Rhoades, who will take over for the retiring Bishop D'Arcy in January.
Upon learning of the invitation, about which he had not been consulted, D'Arcy stated last March that "the diocesan bishop must ask whether a Catholic institution compromises its obligation to give public witness by placing prestige over truth," and condemned the appearance of "surrender to a culture opposed to the truth about life and love."
Meeting in June, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops approved a resolution expressing solidarity with Bishop D'Arcy and his "solicitude for [Notre Dame's] Catholic identity."