Obama Honor Puts Notre Dame's Catholic Standing at Risk

The University of Notre Dame is taking a hit with President Obama's commencement invitation, not just to its reputation but its wallet.

The 44th president delivered the school's commencement address Sunday afternoon, as anti-abortion protesters demonstrated outside and inside the main event. The scrum attracted widespread media attention and threatened to overshadow other aspects of the Catholic institution's graduation ceremonies.

But long after Obama leaves South Bend, Catholics and members of the Notre Dame community will debate the president's 2009 commencement address and the university's awarding of an honorary law degree.

And the appearance could have a lasting effect on the school's standing in the Catholic community.

According to organizers of ReplaceJenkins.com, a Web site critical of Notre Dame President Rev. John Jenkins' decision to host President Obama, more than 1,400 pledges have been received from alumni and donors promising to withhold future donations, a tally of nearly $14 million.

"Most of the donors were at least loosely aware of the university's trend away from its Catholic identity," spokesman David DiFranco said in a press release issued on Tuesday. "But the invitation of President Obama to speak and to receive an honorary degree, combined with the weak responses presented by Father Jenkins as a defense to those (who) have criticized the decision, is what drives most alumni to our site."

In "nearly all cases," DiFranco said, alumni who contacted the group had already decided to cease donating.

University spokesman Dennis Brown declined to comment.

"Our conversations with alumni benefactors and others about their plans to give or not are confidential," Brown wrote FOXNews.com.

In a letter to graduates on Monday, Jenkins acknowledged the debate surrounding Obama's visit and reiterated both his and the university's stance on abortion.

"I am saddened that many friends of Notre Dame have suggested that our invitation to President Obama indicates ambiguity in our position on matters of Catholic teaching," Jenkins wrote. "The university and I are unequivocally committed to the sanctity of human life and to its protection from conception to natural death."

Jenkins, who cited Notre Dame's "long custom" of conferring honorary degrees to sitting U.S. presidents, praised Obama's policies on immigration and health care.

"Ultimately, I hope that the conversations and the good that will come from this day will contribute to closer relations between Catholics and public officials who make decisions on matter of human life and human dignity," Jenkins wrote. "There is much to admire and celebrate in the life and work of President Obama."

Fifty-six percent of U.S. voters, including 60 percent of Catholics, believe Notre Dame should not have rescinded its invitation to President Obama, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday. Observant Catholics, meanwhile, were less divided, with 49 percent supporting Obama's presence, compared to 43 percent who did not.

"My strong hope is that serious Catholics will not let this particular incident drive them away from Notre Dame, which remains very important in the life of the Church," Professor Richard Garnett wrote FOXNews.com earlier this month. "But, Notre Dame has allowed itself to get into a very unhealthy adversarial relationship with many bishops, and lay Catholics.

"The university is going to have to find ways to demonstrate its Catholic character, to reassure those who think that the invitation to President Obama revealed a lack of commitment to that character."

Graduating senior John Souder -- a member of ND Response, a coalition of student groups that oppose the university's decision to bestow an honorary law degree to the pro-choice president -- said the answer is much clearer.

"Notre Dame's standing within the Catholic community will lessen," Souder wrote FOXNews.com. "For many years, Notre Dame has stood as a symbol of American Catholicism ... This invitation has been perceived, and understandably so, (as) a betrayal of this identity."

Others close to the Catholic controversy said they plan to punish Notre Dame financially.

Jeannette Niezgodski, of South Bend, Ind., said the decision will have a lasting and immediate effect on her family's previously close connection to the university.

"My mom, we buy her Notre Dame tickets every year, and that's not going to happen anymore," she said. "And when we get home, we're going to burn all our Notre Dame apparel and there will be no more funding from any of us or anyone I know."