NEW YORK — A campaign by outraged Roman Catholics to keep President Barack Obama from delivering the commencement address at Notre Dame shows that the gulf between the church and backers of abortion rights remains deep.
Yet the effort to get the school to rescind its invitation to Obama also highlights a political disconnect between the conservative Catholic hierarchy and millions of U.S. Catholic voters.
Since the White House announced in March that Obama had accepted Notre Dame's invitation to speak May 17, more than 358,000 people have signed an online petition demanding that the university take back the offer. The Cardinal Newman Society, an advocacy group for Catholic colleges that circulated the position, said the invitation violated a 2004 bishops' mandate that stated, "The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles."
One Catholic leader, Archbishop Raymond Burke, accused Obama of pushing an anti-life, anti-family agenda. Burke, the first American to lead the Vatican supreme court, said Friday it was "a scandal" that Notre Dame had invited Obama to speak.
Catholic activists and bishops have been outspoken in their criticism of Obama. By comparison, they had only occasional disagreements with President George W. Bush, primarily over the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which the Vatican condemned but many conservative Catholics supporters.
'Above my pay grade'
They cite his support for abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research, and his repeal of a policy that denied federal dollars to international relief organizations that provide abortions or abortion-related information. They remain angry with Obama's support for legislation that would prohibit state and local governments from interfering with a woman's right to obtain an abortion.
Obama also has been criticized by Catholics and other opponents of legal abortion for telling Pastor Rick Warren at a campaign forum last summer that the question of when life begins was "above my pay grade."
Yet polling and other evidence shows that Catholic voters have a largely positive view of the president, closely tracking other national polling. Obama's standing is more evidence that U.S. Catholics don't always follow the Church hierarchy, whether on issues such as abortion and contraception or political preferences. Also, the president's community service background and his opposition to the Iraq war appeal to some Catholics.
As a candidate, Obama worked hard to woo Catholic voters. He chose an observant Catholic, Joe Biden, as his running mate, and Biden campaigned hard for the ticket in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, which have large Catholic communities. But Biden also supports abortion rights, putting him at odds with the bishops and many conservative Catholics.
Obama is also widely popular among Hispanics, a fast-growing growing Catholic population in the U.S.
'A cycle of decline for our church'
Patrick Whelan, a physician at Harvard Medical School and president of Catholic Democrats, said that by taking such a hard line against Obama, bishops and other conservative leaders risked driving Catholics away from the church rather than cool their support for the president.
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"There are unintended consequences to this kind of angry, vituperative language about their opponents," Whelan said. "By making themselves pawns of the conservative right, the bishops are playing into a cycle of decline for our church."
Notre Dame students are generally enthusiastic about Obama's impending visit to their northern Indiana campus. He won about 57 percent of the students' vote in a mock election in October, compared with 41 percent for Republican John McCain, an abortion rights opponent.
Won 54 percent of the Catholic vote
Obama, a Protestant, won 54 percent of the Catholic vote in the 2008 general election and continues to be viewed more favorably by Catholics than by Protestants. A Quinnipiac University poll released in late April found that white Catholics approve of Obama's job performance by a 57-33 percent margin, while white Protestants are split 44-42 percent in favor.
Catholics have sided with the winner in eight of the past nine presidential elections. That suggests their votes generally mirror national political trends and are not overly influenced by a candidate's abortion position.
The only exception to the pattern was in 2000, when Catholics narrowly favored Democrat Al Gore, a Protestant abortion-rights supporter, over Bush, a Protestant whose views on abortion were seen as more in line with Catholic teaching. Gore won the popular vote in the disputed election that year.
Conservative Catholics more skeptical
In 2004, Catholic voters chose Bush over Democrat John Kerry, a Catholic who supports abortion rights.
J. Matthew Wilson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University who has studied the Catholic vote, said observant Catholics tend be more conservative and much more skeptical of Obama than those who don't practice the faith.
"There are large number of voters who are nominally Catholic but are not regular churchgoers and not tied in with Catholic life in any meaningful way," Wilson said. "Many of these people know nothing about what the bishops are saying about political matters because they're not in church to hear them."
Indeed, a new Pew Research Center poll found that 45 percent of Catholics who regularly attend Mass said it was wrong for Notre Dame to invite Obama to speak. Fifty-six percent of nonobservant Catholics said the school was right to invite him.
Many prominent Catholic politicians have been condemned by the church for supporting legal abortion. Most have been Democrats, including Sen. Ted Kennedy, whose brother, John F. Kennedy, was the first Catholic president. Others include House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Geraldine Ferraro, the party's 1984 vice presidential nominee and the first woman to appear on a major party ticket.
In 2004, St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke said he would deny communion to Kerry because of the senator's support for abortion rights. He made the same threat against Rudy Giuliani, a Catholic and former New York mayor who ran for the Republican presidential nomination last year.
Cuomo tangled with Church hierarchy
Former Democratic New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, a Catholic and abortion rights supporter, tangled with the church hierarchy during his three terms in office. He delivered a well-regarded speech at Notre Dame in 1984 explaining that Catholic lawmakers cannot impose their religious beliefs on the public at large.
Cuomo recently sent a letter to Notre Dame outlining his views on Obama's impending speech there, and shared a copy with The Associated Press.
"The president's appearance at Notre Dame will not in any way serve as an acceptance or condonation of his position on abortion and stem cells, but rather will provide the university the opportunity to reject — freely and clearly — those positions for all the world to hear and read," Cuomo wrote. "Better that confident and respectful stance by the university than a defensive and impolite insult to our nation's respected and singularly important world leader, who demonstrated his respect to Notre Dame by agreeing to come to the university."
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