By Karna Swanson
SOUTH BEND, Indiana, MARCH 25, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Notre Dame’s decision to invite President Barack Obama to deliver this year’s commencement address is a “telling event,” says the president of a group of alumni who are protesting the move.
William Dempsey is the president of Project Sycamore, a Web site founded three years ago by alumni concerned about the state of the university’s Catholic identity.
In comments to ZENIT, Dempsey affirmed that the university’s “Catholic identity has been severely weakened, and this episode brings all of that to the fore.”
More than 700 Notre Dame alumni have signed a petition launched today by Project Sycamore protests the university’s decision to invite Obama, a known advocate for abortion rights, to speak at its commencement ceremony and give him an honorary degree.
The petition is distinct from the one launched over the weekend by the Cardinal Newman Society, which has attracted over 140,000 signatures. Project Sycamore specifically seeks to target alumni of Notre Dame, and those who have a connection to the university.
The petition of Project Sycamore notes Obama’s “unwavering and notorious support of the pro-abortion agenda,” and said Notre Dame has “inexplicably decided to honor him.”
In a letter sent on behalf of the project to Father John Jenkins, president of Notre Dame, the group expressed their “astonished dismay at, and deep disappointment.”
“President Obama’s statements and executive and legislative actions identify him as unremittingly hostile to the moral claims of the unborn and accordingly to a central teaching of the Catholic Church,” the letter explained. “By virtue of his position, he is now the nation’s leading champion of virtually unrestricted abortion rights.”
“No matter any disclaimers by the University or what President Obama says,” the note added, “the ineradicable facts that will stamp this occasion are the University’s decision to inscribe in the University roll of honorees the name of the most pro-abortion President in the nation’s history and its choice of him as the person to speak to the 2009 graduates about the values they should hold dear.”
“This compromising action gravely diminishes Notre Dame,” the petition concluded. “It profoundly wounds its claim to be a Catholic institution. It strikes with incalculable cost at the pride of its graduates. We protest.”
In the minority
A member of the class of 1952, Dempsey told ZENIT that he hopes the petition will “draw support not only for this issue, but for our general and strong concern for the weakening of the Catholic identity of the university over recent years.”
The Notre Dame alumnus cited “the precipitous drop in the Catholic representation of the faculty from about 85% in the 1970s to only 53% today. And if you discount from the 53% the dissident Catholics on the faculty, and the culture Catholics and not really serious Catholics, then you’re way down below the majority that the mission statement requires.”
Dempsey explained: “The mission statement of the university says that the Catholic identity of the university depends upon — not just that it would be nice to have — but depends upon the continuing presence of a predominant number of Catholic intellectuals on the faculty, and that’s been always interpreted to mean a solid majority of real Catholics.
“So the university has fallen below its own standard for maintaining its Catholic identity and that’s the problem.”
Noting that the “Vagina Monologues” have been allowed to be staged annually on campus, he said that “you just would not have that in a school in which a genuinely Catholic faculty predominated.”
The president of the alumni project acknowledges that all is not lost: “There’s a core of really splendid dedicated Catholic scholars on that faculty — it’s an aging group, but they’re there. The order of priests is still there. They’re thinning, but they’re still there.
“Then there’s the student body that is 85% Catholic. Now that’s enormously important in retaining what is being retained of the Catholic identity.”
Dempsey underlined that Project Sycamore is supported by alumni who are loyal to Notre Dame, and that the current situation in which they have to criticize the university is painful.
“But that is our role,” he said. “Our role is to speak the truth about the university, both the good points, and there are many of them, but also the weaknesses.”
“Our function, our principle function by far, is to alert alumni to the fact that everything isn’t they same as it was when they were there,” the alumnus explained. “And that it will require their determined effort and attention to call the university back to its dedicated path.”
Dempsey said his alma mater has been overly concerned with “secular ambition” and that they’ve “been on a quest for secular acclaim, or rising in the rankings of the U.S. News and World Report.” He added that the university is also seeking admission in the American Association of Universities as a top-tiered research university.
However, he noted, Notre Dame’s law school and business school, which both rank well nationally, have also done well to retain their Catholic identities.
Notre Dame’s faculty of the law school is 85%-87% Catholic, and the business school, which is now ranked second in the country, is 64%-65% Catholic.
“What the law school and the business school prove, is that you can be ranked high and still be thoroughly Catholic,” said Dempsey.
“If you want to be considered a Catholic university, you must be a Catholic university and have a predominantly Catholic faculty,” he concluded. “Otherwise, you’re misleading the public. It’s false advertising.”
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On the Net:
To sign the petition: www.ipetitions.com/petition/oppose_obama/index.html
Project Sycamore: www.sycamoretrust.org/pages/news.php