The National Catholic Review

President Obama has completed his first 100 days. The calendar has always seemed an odd way to connote significance but time is a thing we humans have long enjoyed measuring so I suppose it is as good a marker as any for assessing the new Chief Magistrate.

If you read only the statements by some American bishops in the past few weeks, you would have thought the sky was falling. The language used by certain prelates, in chastising Notre Dame’s decision to award the President an honorary degree, has been disrespectful to say the least. Intended or not, someof the more vocal members of the hierarchy have given the impression that even sharing the stage with President Obama is a moral outrage. "Utterly appalled" said Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz. "Scandalous" was one of the kind adjectives applied by Bishop Robert Finn. Funny, I seem to remember a story in the Scriptures in which the Pharisees used precisely such language when Jesus of Nazareth broke bread with tax collectors and sinners.

Dr. Mary Ann Glendon certainly seems to think it a moral impossibility to share the stage with the President. Given the fact that her last employer, the Bush administration, committed torture which is, last time I checked, an intrinsic moral evil, it is rich to hear her lecturing about moral outrage. I do not doubt Dr. Glendon acted sincerely. She just acted as a sincere Republican. I hope the bishops who are in such high dudgeon about Obama will demand that Dr. Glendon be forbidden from receiving any Catholic honors until she renounces her association with the Bush administration. Unlike Obama, after all, she is a Catholic and clearly falls under the prohibition of such awards to those who violate the Church’s fundamental moral beliefs made in the 2004 document "Catholics in Political Life."

The view from the Vatican is, to put it mildly, far different. Yesterday’s L’Osservatore Romano noted the President’s cautiousness and moderation, including on life issues. "Even on ethical questions -- which, from the electoral campaign, have been the forceful concern of the Catholic episcopate -- Obama doesn't seem to have confirmed the radical changes he had aired." it said. That translates as: FOCA is never gonna happen so relax. Certainly, L’Osservatore Romano did not hurl upon Obama the sobriquet thrown at him from some, including some U.S. bishops, that he is "the most pro-abortion president" in history. The Pope’s newspaper even commended him for seeking to limit the number of abortions by supporting the "Pregnant Women Support Act," a bill that has also won the endorsement of Cardinal Justin Rigali.

The fact is that while we Catholics understand abortion to be not just one issue among many but a foundational issue, the country as a whole is today primarily concerned that the President fix the economy. While we recognize that our concern for the unborn springs from the same part of the Catholic heart as our concern for the poor, for the immigrant, for those who lack health care, many voters concluded that the Republicans were paying lip service on abortion and it was better to vote our moral conscience on these other issues where we are already seeing a difference. We do not see how other people of good will can fail to see the horror of abortion, but most people are ambivalent about the issue even though there is no ambiguity about the horrific torture memos we are reading. I honor and commend those bishops who must be frustrated that so little has changed since Roe and I always want to see our Church saying, insistently, even when others grow weary of our words, our commitment to the unborn is integral to who we are as Catholics. But, the bishops must find a way to articulate that concern that does not make them look like partisans sniping at the President.

In short, the whole nation is pulling for President Obama and leading Catholics treat him as a pariah. It is bizarre and it is tragic.

I do not wish to lay blame and I am sure there is plenty to go around. But, can we change the impression that the Catholic Church is hostile to this President whom the nation continues to embrace, not just to his position on abortion? Can the Notre Dame situation and all it represents be redeemed? “Spes Salvi!” said Pope Benedict XVI. Cardinal Francis George recently said that he intends no disrespect to the President nor does he question his good faith. As president of the Episcopal Conference, Cardinal George should consider designating a member of the hierarchy to go to Notre Dame for commencement, both to welcome the President and to explain to him why his coming causes us ambivalence, why our concern for the unborn is so central to our Catholic identity. There is a way for the hierarchy to voice its concern about abortion in a way that is respectful to the President and they need to find it, preferably by May 17 when the President comes to Notre Dame.

In the next hundred days, the administration will begin dealing with health care, immigration reform, environmental policy and the conscience regulations, all areas of specific and profound concern to the Catholic Church. The way he has been treated, Obama would be within his just rights to bar all members of the hierarchy from those discussions. Certainly, the vituperative language of some bishops has had the effect of strengthening the hand of those within the administration who wish to fight the Church’s position on an issue like the conscience regulations. “Why listen to people who have tried to publicly embarrass you?” they can ask the President during internal administration debates. He does not seem like the kind of man who holds a grudge. Nor is it ever in the long-term interest of a politician to court public fights with clerics. But, it is now incumbent upon the hierarchy as a whole to find a way to reach out to President Obama. If they manage to lower passions before Notre Dame’s commencement, all the better: The pictures of a President shunned by the hierarchy will only make it more difficult to heal the breach after May 17.

During another challenging time in our Church’s history I had the good fortune to be a student in Msgr. John Tracy Ellis’s classroom.  Msgr. had written the definitive biography of Cardinal James Gibbons and he considered Gibbons a model of effective Episcopal ministry. On that day he said, “Oh, James, where are you when we need you?” Perhaps, at episcopal ordinations we should give new bishops a bracelet like many teenagers wear today, only instead of the acronym WWJD, it would have the letters WWGD: What would Gibbons do? In the current controversy, I think Gibbons would find a way to be on that stage at Notre Dame.


Show Comments (21)

Comments (hide)

Anonymous | 5/4/2009 - 12:10pm
Aborted babies like dead men tell no tails and are not able to join freely in an open discussion.  They get no Harvard Degrees.  Remember we called our Vietnam soldiers baby killers but it was and has been the American Society's Legacy, rather than our soldiers, to be the real baby killers nonstop for over a third of a century. 
Anonymous | 5/2/2009 - 12:15am
Our complete lack of perspective on abortion is driven by the way the debate has been shaped - as a private moral issue, as if it has no ramifications beyond the mother (and child) involved. Let us consider the bigger picture: - If one in five of our young workers and citizens were emigrating from our country each year, we would consider it a national crisis and a death sentence for our future prosperity. Strangely, we consider the abortion of one in five of our future workers and citizens a sign of how ''progressive'' we are. One in five. - Abortion rates are disproportionately higher in many states that are strongly Blue; if one notes which states are slated to lose House seats, electoral votes, and federal funding after the next census, the trends are not positive for Mr. Obama's own party. Such losses will have a far bigger impact on our country than the current economic crisis or the Iraq War. Many have attempted to counter-balance this argument by suggesting that support for Mr. Obama demonstrates a society with a very Catholic care for the needy. Unfortunately, this argument rings hollow, since that same society was also quite enthusiastic about the tax cut Mr. Obama promised 95% of its members, thus reducing the contribution of most taxpayers to those same needy. While government programs may be a practical necessity, a truly caring society is one that voluntarily donates the resources the needy require. Mr. Obama is, at best, indifferent to a practice that may very well be the ultimate downfall of our nation. It is little surprise that at least a few might be upset over his speaking invitation. Bryan Kirchoff St. Louis
Anonymous | 5/1/2009 - 5:11pm
Mr. Binder: Is this unclear? "The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions." Seems pretty clear to me... And I'm not sure what part of FOCA you think the USCCB "lied" about. I would think one might refrain from calling the bishops liars without providing support for the claim. Perhaps you can enlighten us.
Anonymous | 5/1/2009 - 1:45pm
Steve, you lost me on the remarkable clarity part when I recalled the extent to which the USCCB lied about the spectre of FOCA.
Anonymous | 5/1/2009 - 11:32am
It seems Mr. Winters is incapable of comprehending the moral arguments articulated with remarkable clarity by the USCCB, more than 40 American bishops, Ambassador Glendon, and countless others. To insist that such objections are mere Republican sour-grapes strains credulity and smacks of willful disregard for the meits of the arguments. And the implication that there is some sort of analogy to be drawn between "Glendon on torture" and "Obama on abortion" is utterly absurd. Did Glendon sign an executive order mandating the use of government money for overseas torture? Has she insisted that torture is a fundamental right? Has she endorsed a removal of virtually all legal restrictions on torture? Did her role as Vatican Ambassador have anything to do with torture at all? By the way, what's the Obama Administration policy on "renditions"? Or does asking that question make me a Republican hack?
Anonymous | 5/1/2009 - 8:42am
As a Notre Dame student myself, I support Notre Dame's decision to invite the President. It is our custom, and furthermore I note that the President won the support of both a majority of students on campus, our St. Joseph county community, and Catholics nation-wide. While there are elements, even within the Church, that are unhappy about this, the President enjoys the support of the Catholic community as a whole.
Anonymous | 4/30/2009 - 7:41pm
The word ''appeasement'' says it all. This is the attitude that informs the uncivil tone of so many of the anti-abortion folks. That term ''anti-abortion'' should be the one used, incidentally, rather than pro-life, for many of the folks protesting against Notre Dame's decision re: the president have little regard for Paragraph 27 of Gaudium et Spes: [W]hatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are supreme dishonor to the Creator.
Anonymous | 4/30/2009 - 7:09pm
This Article? One Word. Amen.
Anonymous | 4/30/2009 - 6:44pm
"you would have thought the sky was falling" or that the Bishops' concern had to do with the Sanctity of Life issue and the unpardonable sin against The Holy Spirit, The Lord, The Giver of Life, the Creative Love between The Father and The Son from the beginning.
Anonymous | 4/30/2009 - 6:05pm
You really didn't expect the Fabulous Fabian Brusquewits and Lack of Finnese to say otherwise, did you? And check this out:
Anonymous | 4/30/2009 - 5:28pm
Our approach to abortion is utterly broken. We know it is so because it is dragging us, including our bishops, down into sin. We have become disrespectful, passionate and prideful. Just listen to the hateful things people have been saying. Bishops and laity who refuse to associate with the President at Notre Dame scandalize the church when they disrespect him publicly. Do they not know that God has appointed President Obama over them? The Catechism [1899] and St. Paul [Rom 13:1] are very clear on this point. I believe that God will never ask us to sin. If we listen and wait like Jesus did, God's solution will develop. Maybe we should study how Pius XII dealt with the Nazi's. Maybe we should remember how the people's pride and disrespect lead to the crucifixion of our Lord.
Anonymous | 4/30/2009 - 3:18pm
If the bishops won't appear on stage with Obama, at least we have good Catholics like Judge John Noonan who will. Thank God for that. God Bless
Anonymous | 4/30/2009 - 3:00pm
Hmmm. Didn't take long for you to go on the attack against Amb. Glendon. Put aside the irrelevance and fallaciousness of your tu quoque argument, as well as the fact that Amb. Glendon is, apparently, a Democrat. Let's focus instead on the petty hypocrisy of your comments. Back when you thought Amb. Glendon was going to merrily go along with providing cover for Notre Dame's decision to honor the President, you were gushing: ''There is no denying her credentials either as a conservative or as a pro-life advocate. I will bet dollars to doughnuts the next few weeks will make clear, however, that some on the right will begin attacking Dr. Glendon. Of course, Dr. Glendon, like the University of Notre Dame, is a source of pride for all Catholics, not just for conservatives... I would be blind not to admire her accomplishments, her intellectual force, and her love for the Church...'' But a funny thing happened on the way to the commencement stage: your predicted groundswell of ''right-wing'' animosity toward Amb. Glendon never materialized. Instead, what you predicted the ''right wing'' would do turned out to be exactly what you and the rest of the Catholic left did as soon as Amb. Glendon acted in a manner inconsistent with humble obeisance to Pres. Obama.
Anonymous | 4/30/2009 - 3:30pm
This article? One word. Appeasement.
Anonymous | 4/30/2009 - 1:41pm
Let the pro-lifers have their 15 minutes of fame on this issue. After May 18, their chief issue will fade from the public eye for the conceivable future.
Anonymous | 4/30/2009 - 1:02pm
Well, I heard Obama at his press conference yesterday(4/29/09. He is very articulate and convincing and seemingly reasonable in his position that abortion is, unlike some choice people think, something that needs serious consideration of it's morality and ethics. So, the reason why he is pro-choice is that he believes that this very serious choice needs to be made by a woman (no mention of the man, no mention of a child) and her doctor or clergy (I don't recall mention of those closest to her like family or parents), not by a law or the state. So, how can one be opposed to this very reasonable position, he intimates. Now, is this very dangerous (for infants in the womb and humanity)platform what one wants given or represented from a Catholic University to say nothing of giving honors to one so holding this position? This is what needs have serious consideration and opposition!
Anonymous | 4/30/2009 - 12:22pm
What is rich is to hear an accomplished scholar at Harvard Law in the area of human rights and comparative legal traditions, one of the most respected Catholic intellectuals in the country, be accused of rank partisanship in matters of faith and morality from the author of ''Left at the Altar: How the Democrats Lost the Catholics and How the Catholics Can Save the Democrats.''
Anonymous | 4/30/2009 - 12:18pm
Very well said. Will hopefully encourage people to pause for a moment and question the reasonableness of how they are about to respond.
Anonymous | 4/30/2009 - 10:51am
I agree with most of what you say but I have no hope that a bishop will be 'delegated' to appear at ND.. They, as a body could not admit clergy abuse until it was in their face; now the only hope is that a bishop, on his own, will appear at ND .It's has to be acknowledged that the 300 bishops are not the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae..However one Horatio on the bridge would give heart to many that a new course ,a new strategy to confront and reduce the scourge of abortions.
Anonymous | 5/2/2009 - 12:07pm
So, let me see if I have this straight. When he was running for President, Obama said that his number one priority would be to sign the Freedom of Choice Act into law, proclaiming ''On this fundamental issue, I will not yield and Planned Parenthood will not yield'', while all his Catholic supporters ran around wink-winking and nudge-nudging and trying to convince their fellow Catholics that he didn't really mean what he was saying (i.e. that he wasn't being truthful). But its the Bishops, who took Obama at his word, that are ''lying''?
Anonymous | 5/1/2009 - 10:48pm
Michael, you accuse the USCCB of lying about FOCA. Unless you can prove that this is not the same man who is now President Obama: and this is not the man man who is now President Obama: then it would be you who does not understand the spectre of FOCA, for the Bishops have not lied.

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