It is certainly true that Catholics look to the Pope for moral instruction and leadership, but the widespread notion that the Pope dictates how individual Catholics behave is a fallacy. The Pope's representatives are the bishops, but they have less loyalty to Rome than you might think, and certainly less control over their flocks than the popular conception would have. In addition, there have always been many independent power sources within the structure of the larger Church – the religious orders are the most prominent example, but other Catholic institutions have long had wide latitude in how they conduct their affairs. Which brings us back to Notre Dame.
As I discussed earlier, the University of Notre Dame is one of the most prominent Catholic institutions in this country. For many Catholics, especially in the Midwest, it is a pre-eminent symbol of the Church. This is equally true for non-Catholics, who may know little of Catholic doctrine but recognize Notre Dame as a quintessentially Catholic institution. That means that the public actions of Notre Dame are bound to influence the perceptions of Catholics and non-Catholics about what Catholics believe and the values that Catholics put forward.
"The reason for the strong reaction lies in the growing dismay among many, after years of discussion and organizing, over their inability to stop the killing each day of about 4,000 unborn babies," Cardinal George said in the statement.
"The indications now that the present administration intends to solidify the right to abortion as a permanent civil rights law, without possible qualification of any sort, add to that dismay and increase frustration," he added.
"Abortion is a society-dividing issue."
The statement said Cardinal George has not urged Notre Dame to "disinvite" the president. "He said that both the president and his office should be respected and that the university could not and should not rescind an invitation to the president of the United States," it said. "The president's views are well known as are his reasons for them; he is not himself the issue here."
Cardinal George said "those who were upset about the invitation should let their opinions be known to the university, not to him or other bishops, since the bishops do not control or manage the university."