MANY WHO read this piece will probably say I'm being excessively cynical.

I plead guilty. But merely because they're right doesn't mean that I'm wrong. So here goes: I strongly suspect that President Obama's speech at Notre Dame's commencement was an attempt to separate Catholics from the teachings of their church.

Many in the Catholic community and church hierarchy expressed outrage at the school's invitation to Obama to speak, and to award him an honorary degree. For them, it was highly inappropriate for a Catholic university to honor someone whose support for abortion is so contrary to the position of the church.

He addressed the subject of abortion head on, saying: "Understand: I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. 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."

It's curious that he wants the debate to continue despite his recognition that "the views of the two camps are irreconcilable"? Abortion is presently constitutional. Obama supports a woman's right to abort her unborn child. He has a record of opposing legislative restrictions on abortion. Indeed, his opposition to restrictions on the availability of abortion is extreme. As a senator, he voted against a ban on partial-birth abortions.

What then is the point of a debate? Who is he suggesting should engage in this debate, and to what end? The likelihood that he will change his mind about abortion as a result of the debate is close to zero. It's extremely doubtful that he's suggesting there should be a debate over a constitutional amendment prohibiting abortion.

And he's surely not suggesting that a debate might persuade five Supreme Court justices to reverse Roe v. Wade.

It's also clear that he's not going to appoint anyone to the Supreme Court who believes Roe should be overturned. There's also no likelihood he'd even nominate anyone for the court whose mind was open on the issue. Even if he were so inclined, it's doubtful that such a person could be found, and even less likely that his own party would vote to confirm that person.

Since the two camps are irreconcilable, it's doubtful a debate would produce any meaningful compromise whereby those who support abortion rights would be convinced that certain restrictions are reasonable, and that those who oppose abortion would come to accept the legitimacy of abortion. Certainly, there's very little evidence in the years since Roe v. Wade to suggest such a compromise is possible.

Perhaps Obama sees the debate as not merely a means to an end, but as an end in and of itself. But the point of an endless debate is, of course, difficult to fathom.

In the absence of any rational explanation for wanting the debate to go on, and excluding an irrational one, I'm ultimately led to a rational, if sinister, motivation on the president's part.

The Catholic Church has a long and unyielding position against abortion. Following the Supreme Court's decision in Roe legalizing abortion, Pope John Paul II recognized the difficulty of reversing that decision. In an address commemorating the fifth anniversary of the encyclical "Evangelium Vitae" in February 2000, he referred to abortion as "legalized crime," and argued that no effort should be spared to eliminate it.

He accurately noted that "The changing of laws must be preceded and accompanied by the changing of mentalities and morals on a vast scale, in an extensive and visible way. In this area the Church will spare no effort nor can she accept negligence or guilty silence." He said he was appealing "to scientists and doctors, to teachers and families, as well as to those who work in the media, and especially to jurists and lawmakers."

HOW HAVE the nation's Catholic colleges and universities responded to the pope's plea? The evidence isn't encouraging. A survey of students at those schools showed that "60 percent agreed strongly or somewhat that abortion should be legal."

Obama, like John Paul II, knows that legal abortion might be threatened by a change in the beliefs and politics of future generations. To combat that threat, I believe he went to one of the nation's premier Catholic universities to urge Catholics to debate abortion rather than to follow the teachings of their church.

Call me a cynic. *

Howard Lurie is a retired law school professor. Contact him at