I love listening to the President address issues like health care reform or fixing the economy. He is lucid in ways few of our presidents have been and virtually no other contemporary politician is. He seems to accurately assess not only the issues involved but the values that underlay the issues. President Obama epitomizes reasonableness and decency, and his speeches breathe with liberal values mixed with common sense. When I turn on the television and see him walking to a lectern, I do not anticipate, as I did these past eight years, the potential for a verbal train wreck.
A few years ago, I was having lunch with a bishop. His state had just elected a new governor who, like the President, attended Ivy League schools both for undergrad and graduate schools. The bishop and the governor had just had their first meeting. "He’s not very smart," the bishop said. Of course, the governor was very smart, a man, like the President trained in the law and successful at the varied, complicated tasks, all of which demand effectiveness, involved in seeking high office. But, he was not smart the way the bishop wanted him to be smart. He understood the ins-and-outs of the law but could not give a philosophic defense of the place of the law in a civilized society, or wrestle with a difficult question like – what to do when the law is unjust? He knew policy but he did not know philosophic anthropology. He advocated an array of policies to help the people of his state but he could not discourse clearly on what it means to be a human being, what rights inhere in the human person, what demands upon the state result from an adequate appraisal of human dignity.
President Obama had a sit-down yesterday with religious editors, including our own Father Drew, in anticipation of his meeting with Pope Benedict XVI next week. There was no verbal train wreck, according to the participants. But, when he discusses anything that touches on theology, he sounds very much like the liberal Protestant he is. He is, of course, entitled to his beliefs, but he should be more judicious in how he applies his own principles to his speaking about the Catholic Church. For example, after citing the influence of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin on his own career and thinking, the President said, "And so I know the potential that the bishops have to speak out forcefully on issues of social justice. ...There are going to continue to be areas where we have profound agreements and there are going to be some areas where we disagree. That’s healthy." I am not sure that all disagreements are healthy. Certainly, democracy without debate is unhealthy. But, I do not think it is "healthy" that the President disagrees with the Church on abortion. I think he – and all Americans who support abortion – are wrong and that what would be "healthy" is for them to recognize that they are wrong. Most politicians, and all successful ones, want their interlocutor to see that they are in agreement or close to it. But, here, the President skates very close to the kind of relativism that is Pope Benedict’s biggest worry. Nor is abortion an issue where we can simply "agree to disagree." I do not see that the President grasps how or why the issue is foundational to our social justice tradition he is so quick to applaud.
The President promised a "robust" conscience clause and I do think that he has generally gotten a bum rap on the issue. In its closing days, the Bush administration enacted a rule that was designed to throw sand in the face of the incoming administration. If the rule was as important as Obama’s critics insist it is, why did it take Bush seven years, eleven months and twenty-some days to approve it? That said, President Obama betrayed a bit of myopia about his own administration when discussing the conscience clause: "I think there have been some who keep on anticipating the worst from us, and it’s not based on anything I’ve said or done, but is rather just a perception somehow that we have some hard-line agenda that we’re seeking to push," the President told the reporters. The thing he has done is appoint people with a history of pushing a hard-line pro-abortion agenda to positions of authority within his administration: His Faith-Based Office reports to Domestic Policy Director Melody Barnes who was formerly a board member at EMILY’s list, one of the nation’s most forceful pro-abortion advocacy groups. So, the concerns about his agenda did not just materialize out of thin air, even if they are exploited by Republicans for partisan advantage. We are watching to see precisely how issues like the conscience clause play out. We are waiting to see whether the President will support the Pregnant Women Support Act. I don't think most people would count me among the President’s usual critics, but that does not mean I always sleep well when I think of such issues and how they might play out. And, I hope that his conservative critics will give President Obama credit for taking the issue seriously. He has been keen to carve out room for pro-life Democrats, more so than most of his fellow Democrats and he deserves credit for that too.
The President’s comments yesterday were better than his speech at Notre Dame. And, meeting with religion editors before going to the Vatican was a good idea. Certainly better than scheduling a meeting for Cardinal McCarrick at the White House at 3 p.m. on Good Friday, an event that has become shorthand in the religious community for the occasional clumsiness of Obama’s White House staff when it comes to Catholic sensibilities. I give the President’s performance yesterday a B. Let’s hope the visit next week is an A. But, stay away from the theology Mr. President. It is, as you once said, above your pay grade.