From NBC's Athena Jones
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- In a speech sprinkled with religious references and humor -- and interrupted several times by a handful of shouting protestors -- President Obama addressed directly the controversy surrounding his appearance at Notre Dame University's commencement Sunday, stressing the need to use "fair-minded words" in debating abortion rights and to try to seek common ground.
The school's invitation to the pro-choice president, and its decision to present him with an honorary degree, has sparked protests by anti-abortion opponents who believe the country's largest Catholic university should not grant him such honors.
The Roman Catholic Church opposes abortion and the destruction of human embryos for stem cell research. Obama supports stem cell research and has said he wants abortion to be both legal and rare.
Today, he sought to humanize the two sides of an often-contentious debate, urging people to open their hearts and minds to those who disagree with them in order to "discover at least the possibility of common ground." He also repeated the call he made during the campaign for parties on both sides of the debate to work together to reduce the number of women seeing abortions by making adoption more available and helping reduce unintended pregnancies.
"I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away," Obama told the audience. "Because no matter how much we may want to fudge it -- indeed, while we know that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory -- the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable."
"Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction," he continued. "But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature."
On four occasions early in Obama's speech, men dressed in suits, sitting high in the risers, interrupted the president as they rose to register their protest. One man shouted "Abortion is murder!" and another said "Stop killing our children!" None appeared to be students.
The crowd booed the protestors -- at one point chanting to drown them out -- and each was escorted away. The president acknowledged the protestors, even as he continued with his remarks.
"We're not going to shy away from things that are uncomfortable sometimes," he said.
Indeed, Obama's reception was overwhelmingly positive. But a few anti-abortion graduates decorated their mortarboards with images of baby's feet and a cross in bright yellow. At least four times during the ceremony, one of them, a young woman named Jill Mazur, held her cap up for Obama to see. Elsewhere on campus, Notre Dame police said some 30 protestors had been arrested, mostly for trespassing.
The president thanked the school for giving him an honorary degree, even joking that he had not been as lucky last week at Arizona State University.
"I know it has not been without controversy," he said of the degree. "I don't know if you're aware of this, but these honorary degrees are apparently pretty hard to come by. So far I'm only one for two as president."
Later, illustrating his point about the importance of setting aside differences and working with others toward a common goal, Obama made a rare reference to his own racial heritage.
"I stand here today, as president and as an African American, on the 55th anniversary of the day that the Supreme Court handed down the decision in Brown vs. Board of Education," he said, before going on to talk about what had been accomplished by the six-member Civil Rights Commission -- a group established by President Dwight Eisenhower that included then-Notre Dame president, Father Ted Hesburgh.
Obama told a story about how Father Hesburgh had managed to bring together the five whites and one black member of the commission by leading them all to recognize they shared a love of fishing. He closed his remarks by once again stressing similarity over difference.
"Remember that each of us, endowed with the dignity possessed by all children of God, has the grace to recognize ourselves in one another; to understand that we all seek the same love of family and the same fulfillment of a life well-lived," he said.
Steele's take and Notre Dame student reaction
After the speech, Mazur -- the student with the baby's feet and the cross on her mortarboard -- called Obama's speech disturbing. "I think it was hypocritical to invite President Obama and to honor him when he does not stand for the things that we stand for," she said. "I think it's one thing to have a dialogue; it's another thing to actually act on what you're saying and if you're up there talking about human rights, you cannot go out there and deny rights of the unborn babies."
Mazur's words were in line with the stance Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele expressed earlier Sunday on "Meet the Press," when he said it was "inappropriate" for the university to award Obama an honorary degree because of his pro-choice stance.
Still, Ashley Carlin, a pro-life student from Corona, CA was more supportive. "I also appreciated him for acknowledging that people do differ from him, so it was nice to know that he can see two sides of the spectrum," she said.
After the ceremony, Obama headed to two fundraisers in Indianapolis before returning to Washington.
Sunday's event marked the second commencement address the president has delivered since taking office. On Friday, he is scheduled to speak at the graduation at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD.