LATROBE, PA. - President George W. Bush could hardly have picked a better private liberal arts college to find a welcoming audience for a commencement address than St. Vincent, a Catholic school run by a loyal former White House aide in a conservative region.
Yet consider what has taken place here since Bush was invited for today's speech: Students vigorously debated the invitation at a town-hall meeting last month. A former St. Vincent College president wrote a scathing newspaper essay saying Bush had no place on the campus. About a quarter of the tenure-rank faculty wrote an open letter to Bush challenging the Iraq war as contrary to Roman Catholic doctrine. Several dozen people held a candlelight vigil Thursday night protesting the visit. And for several Sundays, nuns protested on the edge of the campus.
The discord, polite and reasoned as it may be, is emblematic of passions across the country as the war moves further into its fifth year, with increasing military deployments and mounting death tolls among Iraqi civilians and U.S. troops.
If anything, the debate there - at a college associated with the Order of St. Benedict and led by a man who once ran Bush's faith-based initiative - suggests that dissent is spreading into places with little history of protest.
It also suggests that the Bush-led Republican drive to increase support among Catholics, built around Bush's stance on abortion and other social policy issues, could run into trouble over the Catholic doctrine of a "just war."
"I know we have this sense of Benedictine hospitality, but what the president represents does not fit in," said Michelle Sciacca of Pittsburgh, who is graduating with a degree in English.
"We know people are dying there, and that's not part of our faith."
Political scientists caution against reading too much into the impact of the war on one segment of voters.
John C. Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron in Ohio, said Catholics were deeply divided over the war and were "the quintessential swing voters in elections today." He studies religion's role in politics.
The war has threatened GOP outreach to Catholics because church leaders "strongly oppose the war on principle, and have done so from the beginning," Green said.
Bush had made significant inroads with Catholic voters: His slice increased 5 percentage points in the 2004 election compared with 2000. But in a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll last month, Catholics' views on the war tracked closely with the general public's, with 60% of respondents disapproving of Bush's handling of it.
For H. James Towey, who is finishing his first academic year as St. Vincent president, the intersection of religion and politics is familiar.
For more than four years, he directed the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, an effort to increase the role of religious organizations in performing government-funded social assistance work.
He was legal counsel to Mother Teresa for 12 years and lived in her missions for two years. A nearly life-size charcoal drawing of the late nun dominates his office.
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Towey said his e-mails, phone calls and letters had increased tenfold since the announcement that Bush would speak. "The hatred that comes out is just staggering - that he is not a Christian - and they'll unload on him in a most un-Christian way," he said.
But he added, "On these hallowed grounds, the debate has been pretty darn civil."
St. Vincent College, near Pittsburgh, has about 1,660 students and was founded in 1846, the first Benedictine college in the United States. It's on the edge of Latrobe, the hometown of golfer Arnold Palmer and late children's television host Fred Rogers.
"The college is fairly representative of society at large," said Dennis McDaniel, an associate professor of English who signed the open letter to Bush. "The tide has turned here, as it has elsewhere."
McDaniel said: "For many of us, there is a very strong spiritual basis for our opposition to the war, and perhaps that creates an intensity and a sense of conflict that may distinguish our feelings from someone who may simply see it as a strategic mistake."
But Bradley C.S. Watson, who holds an endowed chair in American and Western political thought, said: "If you don't like Bush, that's fine. But don't wrap yourself in the mantle of Catholic social teaching [as though] you have exclusive purchase on it."
At an end-of-the-year softball game pitting faculty against seniors, an informal sampling found a range of opinion about the war, but excitement that Bush would address the graduating class.
"The Catholic community doesn't believe in general that we should be over there," said Justin Eppler, who is about to begin a business marketing job. "It's just a tough situation in general."
But, he added, "everyone here supports our troops 100%."
Kevin Zaffino, who has completed Marine officer training and is to receive his commission as a 2nd lieutenant next month, said that "it's going bad over there" in Iraq but that critics of Bush's visit were "politicizing this event too much."
Nearby, Tyler Tomayko said the United States should not "police the world," but called Bush's visit "an amazing opportunity" for the school.
Towey said there would be dissent no matter who spoke. If it were Pope Benedict XVI, he suggested, "the nuns would still be protesting."
Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times