Much ado is being made over the protests of many in the Catholic Church, including its leadership, over the invitation offered to President Obama to speak at the commencement of the University of Notre Dame in May because of his support for abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research. The national media doesn't understand what all the hoopla is about, which is usually the case when it comes to matters of religion. I have read commentary on the issue from political pundits who think all this is nothing more than right wing extremism from people whose religious views are out of date. Nothing could be further from the truth.
There is an underlying narrative that is being played out in the midst of the Notre Dame controversy. It has bubbled beneath the religious waters for some time, it is now emerging to the surface, and it will only become more pronounced. What is happening at one of America's most prestigious Catholic universities is less about President Obama per se and more about the long-time shift going on within Catholicism in America and the Vatican's response to that shift. From the perspective of the bishops of the Catholic Church, three problems have emerged in America that undermine Catholic moral teaching.
First, America's Catholics have, for a long time, been a strong voting block for the Democratic Party. This was not a problem in the 1950s and 60s when abortion was illegal and embryonic stem cell research was not something within the reach of science. In fact, at one time, more than a few Catholic leaders publicly expressed kindred views with the Democratic Party on labor issues and matters of foreign policy. But with passing of time, abortion is now not only legal, most Democratic politicians support it, and President Obama has said he will sign the Freedom of Choice Act that will make abortion a fundamental right for women in America with the states unable to impose any kind of restrictions, including parental notification. Yet, with this decisive and pronounced shift to the moral left in the Democratic Party, Catholics have not shifted their votes away from the Party they have supported for years. This clearly indicates that Catholics have come to view other political issues, especially economic ones, as having more significance than abortion and the destruction of human embryos.
Second, are the many Catholic politicians in America, who have touted for years a bifurcated morality telling their constituencies that, while they are personally opposed to abortion, they could never force their views, since they are religiously based, on anyone who does not share their convictions. Of course, many of these same politicians do not think twice about imposing their moral views on the rich by raising their taxes to help the poor (and quoting Scripture in the process), but that is another subject for another time.
Third, and related to the first two, Catholic voters in America are increasingly basing their votes on two assumptions the church believes to be false. Some have accepted the bifurcation of morality that their Catholic brothers and sisters in politics are employing in order to justify their votes, while others are increasingly rejecting Catholic moral teaching on abortion. This latter group has been following more and more in the "moral" footsteps of "mainline" Protestantism which has increasingly fallen in love with the spirit of the age.
It was the previous pope, the late John Paul II, who decided that it was time to act in order to remind Catholics in America that its teaching on abortion, and by extension the destruction of human embryos, was and is central to Catholic understandings of morality. Catholics not only could not negotiate this, neither could they discard it as politicians and voters. His successor, Pope Benedict XVI has continued the reminder.
The Vatican's concerns over the direction of Catholicism in America has led to more and more bishops in America speaking directly on this issue to their constituency. This is the underlying narrative playing out when some bishops suggest that Catholic politicians be denied the Mass if they do not oppose abortion, not only with their words, but with their policies. It is also what is going on when other bishops stated in the last election that Catholics should not vote for any candidate who would not protect the unborn from conception to birth. In Catholicism, abortion is not about personal preference, it concerns one's identity as a Catholic. This is what the archbishop of Chicago, Francis Cardinal George was referring to when he stated, "So whatever else is clear, it is clear that Notre Dame didn't understand what it means to be Catholic when they issued this invitation."
Moreover, President Obama unwittingly threw down a challenge to the Catholic Church on the day he lifted the ban on government funding for embryonic stem cell research, when he stated that he was separating politics from science and restoring science to its "rightful place" (a presumptive notion to be sure), thus discarding in cavalier fashion centuries of intellectual depth and rigor that have been brought to bear on issues of life from Catholic theologians and scientists. In actuality, it was President Obama's justification for lifting the ban that lacked intellectual depth and rigor. This challenge was not lost on Bishop John d'Arcy of the Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese when he stated, "While claiming to separate politics from science, he [President Obama] has in fact separated science from ethics and has brought the American government, for the first time in history, into supporting direct destruction of innocent human life."
For those on the evangelical left who have responded in disagreement with the Catholic bishops' opposition to President Obama addressing the Notre Dame commencement on the premise that the university should be a place of dialogue, I ask them consider if they would feel the same way if Notre Dame had invited a self-avowed white supremacist? And while many Protestants are no doubt offended by the comparison of those who are "pro-choice" with those who are racists, they need to understand that in Catholic moral theology and tradition, opposition to abortion is as indispensable as the rejection of racist views and policies. Securing the rights of children regardless of their status inside or outside of the womb is morally equivalent to securing the rights of all persons regardless of skin color and/or ethnicity. Those who disagree may do so, but they must endeavor to respond in a way that is as intellectually rigorous and as theologically competent as the Catholic moral theologians with whom they disagree. Often such responses have fallen far short of the depth and rigor tests, and thus remain unconvincing.
This is the underlying narrative that is playing itself out in South Bend, Indiana; but it no longer sits just beneath the surface. It has taken central stage in Catholic moral reflection in America.
+ + + + + + +
Cross-Posted at RedBlueChristian