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 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 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.
But the Holy Cross priests reminded Notre Dame that U.S. bishops in 2004 adopted a statement that declared "Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors, or platforms which would suggest support for their actions."
The letter noted that this is Holy Week, when the church observes the events that culminated in the crucifixion of Jesus, and said Notre Dame "pursues a dangerous course when it allows itself to decide for and by itself what part of being a Catholic institution it will choose to embrace."
The university fellows, part of Notre Dame's governing structure, have several duties including one to ensure that Notre Dame maintain its Catholic character, according to Notre Dame's web site. Its 12 members include six Holy Cross priests, among them Jenkins and Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria, Ill.
Jenky has not taken a public stand on the Obama invitation.
Brown, the Notre Dame spokesman, said the university also has received a letter from Cardinal George, but he declined to discuss its contents.