Critics Blast Obama's Scheduled Notre Dame Commencement Address

Nearly 65,000 people have signed an online petition protesting President Obama's scheduled May 17 commencement address at the University of Notre Dame, saying the president's views on abortion and stem cell research "directly contradict" Roman Catholic teachings.

"It is an outrage and a scandal that 'Our Lady's University,' one of the premier Catholic universities in the United States, would bestow such an honor on President Obama given his clear support for policies and laws that directly contradict fundamental Catholic teachings on life and marriage," the petition at reads.

The Cardinal Newman Society, an advocacy group for strengthening ideals at the nation's 224 Catholic colleges and universities, created the Web site to end what it calls the "travesty" of Obama's selection. The petition, which had garnered 64,051 signatures as of midday Tuesday, asserts that thousands of other "accomplished leaders" in business, law or education would have been more appropriate selections. The group says it is sending the list to an independent firm Wednesday to ensure that there are no duplicate names.

"Instead Notre Dame has chosen prestige over principles, popularity over morality," the petition reads. "Whatever may be President Obama's admirable qualities, this honor comes on the heels of some of the most anti-life actions of any American president, including expanding federal funding for abortions and inviting taxpayer-funded research on stem cells from human embryos."

David Constanzo, communications director for the Cardinal Newman Society, said Notre Dame's tradition of inviting sitting U.S. presidents to its commencement should be rethought.

"There is a time when policies need to be reconsidered in light of the fact that the individual invited may have a history of standing in direct opposition to some of the most prominent aspects of our faith -- the biggest case in point is that of the pro-life agenda," Constanzo said. "The obligation of Notre Dame as a Catholic institution is to follow the directives of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who clearly stated in 2004 that Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles."

Video: Click here for differing views on campus about Obama's speech.

Meanwhile, the Bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend has indicated he will not attend the commencement ceremony.

"President Obama has recently reaffirmed, and has now placed in public policy, his long-stated unwillingness to hold human life as sacred," Bishop John D'Arcy said in a statement issued Tuesday. "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 he learned that Obama had accepted Notre Dame's invitation just before White House officials announced the move on Friday.

"I wish no disrespect to our president, I pray for him and wish him well," the statement continued. "I have always revered the Office of the Presidency. But a bishop must teach the Catholic faith 'in season and out of season,' and he teaches not only by his words -- but by his actions."

George Weigel, a Catholic theologian and distinguished senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, said the invitation is not a "neutral act" and will significantly damage Notre Dame's reputation in Catholic circles following Obama's decision to reverse restrictions on embryonic stem cell research and for family planning groups that provide abortions.

"I think Notre Dame should not have issued the invitation," Weigel told "This is a colossal mess. This is their mess to fix right now, but they should know that they have forfeited an enormous amount of credibility as an institution that takes moral reasoning seriously."

Weigel said he was not surprised by the outpouring of criticism following the university's announcement on Friday that Obama would become sixth U.S. president to speak at its commencement. Obama will also become the ninth U.S. president to receive an honorary degree from the university.

"Major donors have the most effective leverage in situations like this," Weigel said. "I hope the donors are paying attention."

Asked if Notre Dame is considering rescinding its invitation to Obama, university spokesman Dennis Brown said Tuesday: "I can't foresee that occurring. We made an invitation to the president and he's accepted. We expected criticism and it's nothing beyond what we expected."

The White House did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

In a statement issued Monday, the Rev. John Jenkins, Notre Dame's president, said Obama will be honored as an "inspiring leader" at the commencement.

"Of course, this does not mean we support all of his positions," Jenkins said. "The invitation to President Obama to be our Commencement speaker should not be taken as condoning or endorsing his positions on specific issues regarding the protection of human life, including abortion and embryonic stem cell research. Yet, we see his visit as a basis for further positive engagement."

But Ralph McInerny, a philosophy professor at Notre Dame for more than 50 years, likened the invitation as a "deliberate thumbing of the collective nose" at the Roman Catholic Church.

"By inviting Barack Obama to be the 2009 commencement speaker, Notre Dame has forfeited its right to call itself a Catholic university," McInerny wrote in a column for The Catholic Thing. "It invites an official rebuke. May it come."