Did President Obama Offend Catholics in Northern Ireland Speech?

3 photos(Photo: Reuters/Paul Faith/Pool)U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to guests at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast, Northern Ireland, June 17, 2013.

Bill Donohue, president and CEO of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, issued a statement Friday condemning President Obama's critics who are lashing out against comments he made earlier this week in Belfast, Northern Ireland, which they believe are an attack against the Catholic faith and doctrine taught at religious schools.

On Monday, prior to joining U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron on a visit to the Enniskillen Integrated Primary School in Northern Ireland during the first day of the two-day G-8 summit, Obama addressed more than 1,000 Catholic and Protestant students in Belfast, in which his speech about democracy turned into a controversial battle over his choice of words. During his speech, Obama said: "If towns remain divided – if Catholics have their schools and buildings and Protestants have theirs, if we can't see ourselves in one another and fear or resentment are allowed to harden – that too encourages division and discourages cooperation."

Later that same day, an article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer with the headline, "U.S. President undermines Catholic schools after Vatican Prefect praised them."

The article said the president's comments are an "alarming call for an end to Catholic education in Northern Ireland in spite of the fact that Archbishop Gerhard Müller told Scots that Catholic education was 'a critical component of the Church.'"

It continued, "During Mass at St. Andrew's Cathedral, Glasgow, on Friday night, Archbishop Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, said that 'the Catholic school is vitally important … a critical component of the Church,' adding that Catholic education provides young people with a wonderful opportunity to 'grow up with Jesus.'"

Similarly, the Catholic World News also commented on Obama's speech, in an article which claims, "U.S. President Barack Obama has argued that parochial schools are an impediment to the establishment of a lasting peace in Northern Ireland." It noted that "Obama said 'segregated schools' block the path to full reconciliation."

On Thursday, American Catholics for Religious Freedom released a statement asserting that Obama's "anti-faith, secular agenda was shamefully on full display when he told the young people of Northern Ireland that Catholic education and other faith-based schools were divisive and an obstacle to peace. … He can't bear the thought that Catholic and parochial schools not only teach important values but consistently produce better educational results at lower cost than America's failing public schools."

Donohue, however, believes the controversy is much ado about nothing, even though he agrees "there are plenty of reasons to be critical of Obama's policies as they relate to the Catholic Church," he said in a statement released on Friday. "But the reaction on the part of conservatives, many of whom are Catholic, over his speech in Ireland, is simply insane. Never did Obama say he wants 'an end to Catholic education.' Indeed, he never said anything critical about the nature of Catholic schools. It makes me wonder: Have any of his critics bothered to actually read his speech?"

"Obama was not condemning Catholic schools – he was condemning segregation," wrote Donohue. "He was calling attention to the fact that where social divisions exist, the prospects for social harmony are dimmed. How can anyone reasonable disagree with this observation?"

Donohue also commented that those who are condemning Obama's statements because they came after the speech delivered by Archbishop Gerhard Müller last week are being "unfair."

Obama was in Northern Ireland this week to attend the G8 Summit with Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron, Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russia's President Vladimir Putin and France's President Francois Hollande, that was held at the Lough Erne resort in Enniskillen.