Obama and Notre Dame – a Belated Follow-Up
Although the subject of President Obama being honored by Notre Dame has quickly cooled in the fast-paced blogging universe- I wanted to weigh in with some comments because I think it is important to hold the President to account on some of the promises he made in his speech, and to offer some ideas for how Catholic universities should approach such political intersections in the future.
I watched CNN’s coverage of the Notre Dame Commencement, and listened to the entire speeches by Rev. Jenkins and President Obama. My first thoughts were concerning the overt bias of the CNN anchor, Fredericka Whitfield; she seemed to be primarily concerned with defending Obama on all fronts. She seemed to be ignorant of Catholicism and the way Hierarchy plays out in orthodox Catholic theology. This is no surprise, most reporters are secular in the extreme, but it would have been more professional for CNN to have a special anchor that specializes in reporting on religion and theological issues. Whitfield also seemed completely biased on the abortion issue, preferring the expression “a woman’s right to choose” when talking about it, rather than say, “right to life for the unborn”. If a reporter is going to play a legitimate devil’s advocacy role, then they have to play it both ways when they have competing parties being interviewed. It was my impression that Fredericka was so favorable to the pro-Obama side of things that she offered up only friendly soft ball questions to Rev. James Martin, who was a gushing Obama supporter. Raymond Arroyo, of EWTN, represented the anti-Obama position, and he seemed to be consistently under attack or belittled by Fredericka. I think some letters to CNN concerning Fredericka’s overt bias would be in order.
As far as the larger issue of Obama being invited to the Commencement and being awarded an honorary doctorate, my views sit between the two hardliner camps. I oppose the giving of honorary doctorates at Catholic universities, to politicians who have fundamental disconnects with our social doctrine, and consistent advice on important issues from our Bishops’ and Holy See. Obama is very much opposed to the legal protection of the unborn, and takes a very liberal view on sex and marriage issues. He should be disqualified as a recipient of any high honor, which would indicate that he is intellectually consistent with the mind of the Church on important social issues. To be fair, I would also oppose giving honorary degrees’ to a Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, or even John McCain. I think that any serious reading of the Catholic social doctrine on international relations, war and peace, global economics, and environmental stewardship, as found in the formal teaching in encyclicals, (like Pope John Paul II’s “On Social Concern” relating to relations between nations), and the authoritative Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.
Of course, many self-described conservative Catholics may dispute my contentions here but I find that they usually try to draw attention away from most of the social encyclicals, and they studiously ignore the Compendium in favor of pet secular economic theorists like the “Austrian School”. So we will have to agree to disagree on this- though my confidence comes from an intense study and love for the formal documents which make up the corpus of our entire Church social doctrine- not just the ones relating to the abortion issue.
I would go further in this line of consistent criticism of the American political Left and Right. I don’t believe that the state’s rights approach to abortion rights is truly consistent with Catholic social doctrine. The juridical philosophy called “Originalism”, which is championed by many Catholics supportive of the American political Right, is not one that is rooted in Natural Law. It is legal positivism, and its deepest point of reference is American law, not the underlying natural law, but rather the original intent of those who first formulated our national Constitution. So, we have the judicial activism of the Left, which bends with the spirit of the age, and the “Originalism” of Scalia and Thomas et al, which doesn’t recognize the rights of the unborn because these type of human lives were not in the minds of those who originally wrote up our Constitution- so the American Right feels that it can wash it’s hands of the abortion issue, by simply sending it back to every state. It is a feel-good strategy for those who want to be intellectually consistent, but it is morally inadequate in dealing with the demands of natural law- something that both the Left and Right have decided to jettison in American legal reasoning.
Getting back to Obama’s Notre Dame Address, I think there is a need to follow-up on a couple of fronts. I liked Kenneth Woodward’s Newsweek online commentary, “The Lessons of Notre Dame”. I had similar thoughts about how Obama needs to be pressured to start putting his money where he is mouth is- when it comes to abortion reduction goals. Why hasn’t Obama embraced the Democrats for Life proposed legislation- Pregnant Women’s Support Act? This is something that has the support of the Catholic Bishops, and is clearly a no-brainer for anyone who feels that there is a role for government to address the root causes of abortion choices. The Catholic Left and Right should be combining forces right now to push this legislation, it addresses the fact that a huge percentage of women are claiming that their abortion choice is one made because they are attempting to complete or start Higher Education, and an unplanned pregnancy has threatened to sidetrack their just ambitions for a better future. Certainly, I cannot agree that this reality justifies the killing of the unborn, but it is a reality that must be faced as long as abortion remains a legal option, and even so if women would seek illegal abortions for such reasons (the goal is to save lives, not just change laws). PWSA addresses these types of concerns, and would save a lot of lives; I have no doubt about it.
President Obama promised to be a leader who helps unite and assist the process of finding common ground on abortion. Well, PWSA is one concrete way to do that, and forming a national committee on abortion would be another. This should be a very public, very active, committee that is formed to address the questions of how we as a nation can protect the unborn, and assist women who are the ones who are choosing abortion for various reasons (and what about fathers?). If Obama wants spirited public debate, and not just easy public relations that sidestep the true believers, then he must form this committee. He openly praised a similar Civil Rights committee from the past, he used the comparison to today’s controversy over abortion- so we need to help make this happen- using his own words to demand action.
Finally, Notre Dame failed to use the Commencement Day to its full potential. Rev. Jenkins failed the first test by offering Obama an honorary degree- he would have failed if it had been a President John McCain, as well, in my humble opinion. But if he had simply invited a sitting President to come and speak at the Commencement, without the honorary degree, then he could have been the gracious host, and opened up a vigorous debate on the issues of Life, within the context of the Commencement. What better way to seal an experience of Catholic Higher Education? One doesn’t have to be rude in order to challenge those in power, or those with whom you disagree. Rev. Jenkins and Mary Ann Glendon could have combined to offer a direct challenge to Obama’s beliefs about abortion and embryonic stem cell research. Without the honorary degree in the way, Notre Dame could have used the opportunity of the President’s visit to give him the facts on abortion and the rights of the unborn, which is what we must do repeatedly with those who are in serious error on fundamental moral issues (never just assume someone is completely knowledgeable and culpable). This type of sharing would not have been only something for the President’s ears only; the graduates, their families, and much of the nation could have benefited from such a presentation. This is the type of thing that does more to change hearts, and we could have avoided the necessary scandal of pro-lifers trying to shout down the President of the United States during a speech. We need to constructively engage, whenever we can. Notre Dame could have set up that opportunity, but failed. And the Catholic Left is failing to challenge a leader from the Left, similar to how the Catholic Right failed to challenge a leader from the Right on the issues where there is a big disconnect from our public Catholic social teachings and prudential judgments following those teachings from our Hierarchical Catholic leadership.
We should learn from the Notre Dame debacle, and find our own common ground in the Catholic Left and Right- the basis for this common ground should be a shared study of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, and one devoted to the upcoming Social Encyclical of Pope Benedict- which should be coming out later this month. I, for one, can hardly wait!