INDIANAPOLIS — Vice President Mike Pence will deliver the commencement address this spring at the University of Notre Dame, the school announced Thursday, an honor customarily reserved for newly elected U.S. presidents.
Notre Dame’s president, the Rev. John Jenkins, had criticized President Donald Trump over his executive order limiting travel and refugees from some Muslim-majority countries, saying it would “demean our nation.” In a December statement, Jenkins said he was considering whether to extend a speaking invitation to Trump but didn’t “want the surrounding controversy to distract from the central purpose of commencement.”
Notre Dame spokesman Paul Browne declined to say whether Trump was invited to the May 21 ceremony or might be asked to visit the South Bend, Indiana, campus in the future. Browne said he expects Pence will be “warmly welcomed.”
“But that doesn’t mean we won’t receive complaints from people who would have preferred someone else,” Browne said. “We typically do.”
Pence said in a statement that it’s “extraordinarily humbling” to be able to return home to Indiana for the Notre Dame ceremony, during which he will be awarded an honorary degree.
Jenkins said in a statement the school was proud to have the former Indiana governor represent the new administration.
Presidents and vice presidents typically deliver commencement addresses each spring. The White House has yet to announce any commencements for Trump.
The country’s best-known Roman Catholic university faced withering criticism from dozens of bishops and anti-abortion groups over its decision to have President Barack Obama, an abortion rights supporter, speak at the 2009 commencement just months after he took office.
Pence will be the first vice president to give the Notre Dame commencement address, while six presidents dating back to Dwight Eisenhower have done so. Besides Obama, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush have done so during their first year in office, according to the university.
Pence, who was raised Catholic but became a Protestant evangelical as a young adult, has had his own run-in with church leaders.
Pence, while still Indiana governor, asked now-Cardinal Joseph Tobin in late 2015 for the Indianapolis archdiocese to stop resettling Syrian refugees in the state following the Paris terrorist attacks. Tobin, who is now the archbishop in Newark, New Jersey, refused, saying that helping refugees “is an essential part of our identity as Catholic Christians.”
Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, who had condemned Notre Dame for honoring Obama at the 2009 graduation, encouraged the school in January to invite Trump as commencement speaker.
Chaput praised Trump for pledging to support key goals of the anti-abortion movement, but criticized the president’s views on immigrants as “‘deeply troubling.’”
“The invitation would certainly make sense and might be fruitful in unforeseen ways,” Chaput wrote in his archdiocesan newspaper, saying a campus visit could be educational for Trump. “God writes straight with crooked lines.”
The local bishop opposed Notre Dame’s decision last year to give then-Vice President Joe Biden its top award during the commencement ceremony, saying it wrongly sent a message that a politician could support abortion rights and gay marriage and still be a good Catholic. Biden, who shared the Laetare Medal with former Republican U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, spoke during the ceremony but didn’t give the main address.
AP religion writer Rachel Zoll contributed to this report.