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  Obama’s Speech at Notre Dame Protested By Conservative Groups

By John K. Wilson

“SCANDAL: Obama to Deliver Notre Dame Commencement.”

That was the headline in an email from the Cardinal Newman Society (CNS), announcing their opposition to having President Barack Obama give the commencement address at the University of Notre Dame on May 17. They even created a website to “Help Stop the Scandal at Our Lady’s University.” According to the letter, “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 Cardinal Newman Society is a right-wing Catholic group that, often successfully, lobbies Catholic colleges to censor liberal views (needless to say, it’s never called for banning conservative supporters of the death penalty from speaking on campuses, even though they violate Catholic doctrine).

The group even attacks conservatives. Quincy University commencement speaker (and well-known conservative radio legend) Paul Harvey withdrew in 2003 after the group’s criticism of his pro-choice beliefs. Reilly called upon Catholic University of America in 2006 to ban politician Bob Casey from speaking on campus. Although Casey is a Catholic who opposes abortion rights, Reilly proclaimed that “Bob Casey has no business delivering a lecture on public morality” because Casey does not want to ban contraceptives.

The Cardinal Newman Society demands that all Catholic colleges impose an unprecedented regime of censorship; in 2005, the Society presented a list of 18 professors at Catholic Colleges that the group believes should be fired because these professors took a position on the Terri Schiavo case contrary to that of the Vatican. These attacks have had a strong influence on Catholic Colleges, and administrators fear being the next target of the group.

Perhaps the most dramatic case of the Cardinal Newman Society’s attack on academic freedom came at the University of St. Francis in Chicago in spring 2004. Dr. Nancy Snyderman was dis-invited from giving the commencement address four days before graduation after a campaign against her by the Cardinal Newman Society. A surgeon, author and former ABC medical correspondent (she’s now featured on NBC Nightly News), Snyderman, who is personally opposed to abortion, had mentioned in a medical report on ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Oct. 30, 1997 that some doctors recommend “selective reduction” via abortion for a woman pregnant with septuplets because of the high risk in having seven babies. A letter to Snyderman from the university read, “The university recently received information … containing comments by you on the topic of abortion, and these comments appear to be contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church. As a Catholic university, we have no choice but to rescind our invitation.” When a journalist and doctor is banned from a campus for accurate reporting on abortion issues, it indicates how far the repression of freedom at Catholic colleges has gone.

Another form of retaliation used by the Cardinal Newman Society is to remove institutions from official designation as Catholic colleges, hurting their recruiting and fundraising. In 2003, the Cardinal Newman Society was able to pressure to have Marist College removed from the list after Eliot Spitzer was allowed to speak at its graduation. In 2005, Marymount Manhattan College was similarly de-recognized after it allowed Hillary Clinton to speak. This kind of intimidation forces colleges that wish to remain Catholic to censor the speakers allowed on their campus on the orders of a right-wing splinter faction.

But the group, although adept at getting publicity, is far outside the Catholic mainstream. The Association of Catholic College and Universities denounced the Cardinal Newman Society for making accusations that are “distorted, inaccurate and in some cases simply untrue.”

Thanks to Reilly, Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues” is the most frequently banned play in America. The Cardinal Newman Society has taken credit for “a marked decline in planned performances of the Monologues” at Catholic colleges. In recent years, the play has been banned at the University of Portland, Iona College, the College of New Rochelle, Loras College, Rivier College, Xavier University (Ohio), Catholic University of America, Providence College, Loyola University of New Orleans, Emmanuel College, St. Ambrose University, St. John’s University, St. Joseph’s College (Indiana), Wheeling Jesuit University, Alverno College, College of Saint Mary (Nebraska), Edgewood College, Fontbonne University, Loyola Marymount University, Marquette University, the University of St. Francis, and several other institutions. Censorship has discouraged students from trying to organize performances at many other colleges.

It’s time for Catholics and anyone concerned about academic freedom and free speech in this country to speak up and say that the Cardinal Newman Society is wrong. There shouldn’t be repression of different views at Catholic colleges. And Notre Dame should be proud that Barack Obama has chosen to honor its campus by giving the commencement address. Although the Cardinal Newman Society was unsuccessful in its efforts to bar Obama from speaking, the power of its agitation against academic freedom creates a chilling effect at Catholic colleges.