Why There Are No Notre Dame-Like Protests Over Obama’s Xavier Speech

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Among the stops on Obama’s itinerary when he visits New Orleans to commemorate the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is a speech the president is scheduled to give at Xavier University, a Catholic school in New Orleans. You may remember that the last time Obama spoke at a Catholic university–giving the commencement address at Notre Dame in 2009–there was a bit of an uproar. This time around, however, despite the best efforts of Fox News and some pro-life activists, his appearance is prompting little more than a few isolated squawks. What gives?

  • Xavier is not Notre Dame. One of the aspects of the Notre Dame commencement that most galled Catholic critics of Obama was the idea that the nation’s flagship Catholic educational institution was honoring a pro-choice Democrat. While Xavier is also a Catholic university, and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops has called on all Catholic institutions to refrain from “honor[ing] those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles,” the school doesn’t carry the same symbolic mantle that Notre Dame does. And as the nation’s only historically black Catholic college, Xavier is a trickier target for criticism.
  • Obama’s just giving a speech, not being awarded an honor by the school. Again, the same USCCB statement said Catholic institutions should not give “awards, honors, or platforms” to politicians who dissent from church teachings, but the platform part of that has always been less of a concern, particularly when the politician in question is not himself Catholic.
  • The local archbishop doesn’t give a hoot. In the weeks leading up to Obama’s Notre Dame address, his appearance was protested by Catholic leaders including Cardinal Francis George and by the local Bishop John D’Arcy. Gregory Aymond, archbishop of New Orleans, has let it be known that he was not consulted about Xavier’s decision to host the president, but also that he’s not terribly concerned about it. Archbishop Aymond will not attend the speech, as he will be participating in an interfaith prayer service elsewhere in the city at the time. But his spokeswoman made clear the archbishop’s position “that this is not a political speech, but one that is a gesture of compassion for and solidarity with the people of New Orleans.”
  • It’s hard to make this a “Blame Obama” story. Not that Fox hasn’t tried–see the somewhat hilarious headline, “´╗┐Is Obama Violating a Catholic Bishops’ Position With Katrina Speech Location?” Anticlimactic answer: No. The 2004 USCCB statement was directed to Catholic institutions. It wasn’t directed at politicians, especially not politicians who are not Catholic. And even if it was, it should go without saying that the statements of a religious body are not binding on a president. So, no, Obama is not “violating” a USCCB position, nor could he. Some Catholics may be upset with Xavier for hosting Obama, but that’s another matter and, again, their protests have been rather muted thus far.
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