Lucky for President Obama, a picture is worth a thousand words and the picture of cheering students welcoming him to the University of Notre Dame seemed to dispel the weeks of controversy that accompanied his invitation to receive an honorary degree at Catholicism’s flagship university. Unluckily for Mr. Obama, he delivered more than a thousand words, and they did not help his cause.
Those of us Catholics who have supported President Obama and defended his being awarded this honorary degree were hoping he would hit a home run today at Notre Dame’s Commencement. We hoped the speech would set the stage for a rapprochement with the Catholic hierarchy, if not with Catholic Republicans who have no interest in seeing a good relationship between the President and the leaders of the Catholic Church develop. Instead, the speech handed the President’s opponents plenty of ammunition and showed the extent to which the Obama White House is tone deaf to Catholics and our concerns.
During the campaign, when asked about when human life begins, candidate Obama said the question was "above my pay grade." But, he had no difficulty doing a theological riff on Sunday afternoon as he spoke at some length about the relationship between faith and doubt. "But remember too that the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt. It is the belief in things not seen. It is beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us or what he asks of us, and those of us who believe must trust that his wisdom is greater than our own," the President intoned. "This doubt should not push us away from our faith. But it should humble us. It should temper our passions, and cause us to be wary of self-righteousness."
If that was the President’s best impersonation of Augustine, he gets an F. For starters, there is nothing ironic about faith. Secondly, a Catholic university is an odd place to give an essentially Protestant interpretation of what can, and cannot, be "known" by faith. Finally, it is not doubt that invites humility. It is faith itself - faith in a God who has not finished with His creation, faith in a God who counseled us to humility in His scriptures and who gave an example of humility in His own life when He walked the earth - that leads us to humility. And, I would have thought even a rudimentary knowledge of human psychology would suggest that self-righteousness is a temptation as well known to the doubters as to those possessed of true faith.
One wonders why the president’s speechwriters could not find a quote from the Pope appropriate to the occasion. Needless to say, the way to the heart and mind of Pope Benedict is not with a paean to relativism. Yet, the President did precisely that. "The soldier and the lawyer may both love this country with equal passion, and yet reach very different conclusions on the specific steps needed to protect us from harm. The gay activist and the evangelical pastor may both deplore the ravages of HIV/AIDS, but find themselves unable to bridge the cultural divide that might unite their efforts. Those who speak out against stem cell research may be rooted in admirable conviction about the sacredness of life, but so are the parents of a child with juvenile diabetes who are convinced that their son's or daughter's hardships can be relieved." Alas, I am counting the minutes until some smart operative for the GOP makes sure a copy of this passage finds its way to the Vatican.
What disappoints here is that the President was at a university, a place dedicated to the search for truth. He could have moved beyond the debate about "values" that has afflicted our contemporary discourse about the intersection of religion and politics and echoed Pope Benedict’s insistence that faith and reason together seek the truth, a truth that is worthy of the human person.
Instead, President Obama played into the hands of those who reduce religion to ethics, a reduction the Pope has condemned and one which characterizes the politics of the Religious Right. He could have spoken about the relationship of faith and reason and the need to keep them together lest the one turn into fanaticism and the other into a soulless materialism that degrades humankind. He could have delivered a speech that would have caught the Pope’s attention, reinforcing the already apparent desire among many in the Vatican to support his presidency whenever they can. While I am sure the President thought he was doing his best to be respectful and even solicitous of Catholic sensibilities, he failed to find the language and the logic that might have laid the foundation for building a better relationship with the Catholic hierarchy. It was a lost opportunity.