A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Monday, April 06, 2009

The Underlying Narrative of the Obama/Notre Dame Controversy

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political pundits who think all this is nothing more than right wing extremism from people whose religious views are out of date.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.

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Cross-Posted at RedBlueChristian


Angie Van De Merwe said...

Because the Catholic Church bases its understanding on 'tradition", which is not grounded in anything other than faith in the Church's leadership to 'determine "god's will", and the Protestants have left scripture as a literal rendering of history, we are left with natural law/science/culture to determine what life is...

Angie Van De Merwe said...

As to the Catholic Church's focus on the economic, this is where globalization is going, so to be practical and relevant, one has to "keep up with change". Others that see problems with globalization or think more deeply about implications of globalization then, are the ones who are respected. Obama does this, and seems to not allow a difference of opinion (unless one wants to be labelled and hounded by the news media, as a propaganda machine of the politically correct)...

I think educating youngsters to think well is so important and not to just accept anything because of any authorial source of any arena. One has to come to terms and own and think through the issues. That is what is important...

Anonymous said...

A poll shows that 97% fo the graduating class at Notre Dame support having Obama, the baby killer, speak on campus.
These students should be thrown off campus.
How they can study there for 4 years and not be outraged by the invitation of a pro abortion president is beyond me.
The real shame is the attitude of these students.
Abortion isn't a subject for discussion for Christians. It is a matter of faith.
If students can't get that through their thick skulls they need to look for another University.

Allan R. Bevere said...


While I appreciate your sentiments and passion on this subject, I would like to tone down the rhetoric somewhat, so that we might have a genuine dialogue on this all-important matter. By all means be passionate, but let's avoid the name calling.


Anonymous said...
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Bruce said...

Angie, you display an amazing ability to write off "tradition" with a shallow understanding that is way off the mark. You also sweep protestants all together in declaring that protestants understand scripture in a literal sense only. Nothing could be further from reality. A diaglogue needs to have the parties understand what the terms mean to one another. Do you have any interest in understanding tradition and any desire to understand how scripture is interpreted? Some how, I don't think you do. You enjoy tossing up the most superficial understanding that is easy to criticize and then knocking it out of the park in order to support your position.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Brad, you are right, in regards to my "commitment". Why? because I don't think that determining another's life is moral. And that also means whether it is "tradition's" (church leadership) or "god's" (Calvinism) determining "plan". So, I don't want that kind of responsibility where I am personally looked to as an "ultimate authority". I like to give people room for themselves (and expect that for myself, as well).

Why do I think this is important? Because I believe that without a "say" about one's life (at least when one becomes "of age") then, there is a devaluing life and a disrepect for the personhood of the "other", which is an issue of "human rights".

No matter what the "goal" "purpose" or "plan",the "greater good", etc. (any collective) civilized societies and the West's understanding of "good government" allows for diverse viewpoints and opinions, where "social contract" and a "balance of power" is the way to settle disputes, when it comes to different values. Even those accused of some crime have a right to trial by jury and are innocent until proven guilty. Historically, tradition "crucifies" those who they fear undermine their own personal values.

I am not suggesting that there should be no debate or reasonable way of addressing the "values question' in the public square or the university's classrooms...

Traditions sometimes decide how to interpret what the values mean, and the authorities are those who keep guard over that "truth"...for instance, our country values "life", but how that life is interpreted when it comes to abortion is not extrapolated.

Traditions use "leadership" to determine what "life" means and then the followers "follow" that understanding without questioning. That is not using one's head (reason). Therefore, I think that to come to adulthood, full responsibility, and maturity, we cease from depending on someone else to decide for us what our values should be and what they mean. This is work that must be done by the individual. Without allowing the individual to do that work, then the individual does not have "power" over his own life...in determining what he wants to commit to and why...this is the responsibility of educators, and teachers who lead the child/young adult to discern where their commitments lie.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Bruce's critique of your writing is on target. When you respond to a post you do not respond to the way I utilize terminology; you employ your own definitions and go off in your usual direction expressing what seems to be your mono-obsessive concern over ecclesiastical coercion of the individual. It seems as if you turn every discussion in that direction, even if what has been written has nothing to do with the matter.

For example, when you speak of the Catholic church's understanding of tradition, you define tradition in a way that no Catholic theologian would recognize. The same is true with the way you define faith. You may define tradition quite differently from the Catholic tradition. That is fair enough, but what you must not do is impose that definition on someone else when their defintion is not yours. When you do that you will always mischaracterize what someone else has said.

Moreover, since I am the one posting here, you utilize terminology in ways that I do not. Thus, what you do is you read one of my posts, and in your response you replace the way I am using terminology with yours, which means your response not only has little to do with what I wrote, but you mischaracterize what I say.

In reading and in offering critique, contextualization in necessary. You do not contextualize what you read.

Critique is always welcome on this blog. I do not mind the give and take that comes with dialogue and debate; but the debate must have something to do with the subject at hand, and we must seek to understand what all of us are saying instead of playing switcheroo with one another's verbage.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I am absolutely blind, as I have been told this before...

When I said that the Catholic tradition did not think deeply about life, I was thinking in terms of how my husband leads his discussion of "what is life" that definition is not even solvable philosophically, as it really is about personal conviction (and his students come to understand that definitions are not so easily defined)...scientifically...how we define terms is important. And sometimes, my frame is a different one than the one you have...

In responding to Bruce, I was agreeing with his critique of me. And then elaborating on that and since, I was obviously "out of order", I am sorry. Enough said...

Allan R. Bevere said...


Thanks for your response. Please do not take my comments to mean that your comments are not welcome on this blog. Your thoughts always have a place here. I just hope that we can dialogue about the subject that is before us, whatever it may be.


Bruce said...

Angie, Is it possible to believe that people who choose to be Roman Catholic, United Methodist, or any other denomination do so out of a heartfelt and long study of the Church and freely choose to be a part of that church? Peopel who choose to believe something, or someone without carefully exploring that belief are doing themselves a disfavor. I apologize for my words that made you think that you were out of order. That was not my intent. I simply wanted to point out how easy it is to criticize something that has not been carefully explored and understood. Your blindness is no different from mine. We all come from a time and place that influences how we think and act. Relax and enjoy the blog.