The National Catholic Review
Barack Obama, Notre Dame and the future of the U.S. church

At critical moments in life it is important to take stock. The demand from many Catholic bishops and lay leaders that the University of Notre Dame rescind its invitation to President Obama to deliver the 2009 commencement address is surely a critical moment in the relationship between the Catholic Church in the United States and the wider American society. Before battle lines harden further on this issue, we should take time-out to ask some hard and penetrating questions. These are some of the questions that occur to me.

1. What if the president is forced to back out of his appearance at Notre Dame either because he withdraws or the university withdraws its invitation? If this happens, will that further the pro-life effort in our country? If the president is forced to withdraw, will that increase cooperation between the Catholic Church and the Administration, or will it create mounting tensions and deepening hostility? If the president is forced to withdraw, will that bring about fewer abortions in the United States? Will his withdrawal under such pressure lead more people to support pro-life efforts?

2. If the president is forced to withdraw, how will it impact the image of the church? Will it enhance the mission of the church? Will it create a more positive attitude toward the Catholic Church?

3. If the president is forced to withdraw, how will that fact be used?  Will it be used to link the church with racist and other extremist elements in our country? Will the banishment of the first African-American president from Catholic university campuses be seen as grossly insensitive to the heritage of racial hatred which has burdened our country for far too long? Will it be used to paint the bishops as supporters of one political party over another? Will this action be seen as proof that the bishops of the United States do not sincerely seek dialogue on major policy questions, but only acquiescence? 

These questions are not negligible. Cardinal James Gibbons, when he received the "Red Hat," in a memorable sermon at the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, strongly praised the tremendous benefit that came to the church in our country because of the separation of church and state. During our more than two hundred years of history, the American bishops have until very recently steadfastly held to the position of making judgments about policy but never judgments about persons in the political arena. One reason for this position was that the episcopate recognized that the greater good of the mission of the church would be served in this way.

Taking account of what serves the greater good of the mission of the church is not opportunism. It is what Catholic tradition calls prudence. The saints have used various words for this cardinal virtue: discretion, discernment, practical wisdom. The great teacher of discernment, St. Ignatius Loyola, points out in this context the serious evil of the temptation of the good. Not everything that seems good is in fact good. Weighing, discernment and discretion are necessary even in things that seem on the face of it to be good. There is always the twin issue of the objective itself and the means of achieving it. One may be good, the other not.

We American Catholics are grateful for the benefits of the separation of church and state. But that separation is not the separation of church and society--the state is not society. The church has a proper role in society and a constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion. It is the right and the grave obligation of bishops to speak about the moral dimensions of public issues.

Even so, we must step back and consider the limitations--prudential, moral and political--on the role of bishops in public issues. In doing so we need to consider the longstanding policy of the American episcopate in this matter. We must weigh very seriously the consequences if the American bishops are seen as the agents of the public embarrassment of the newly elected president by forcing him to withdraw from an appearance at a distinguished Catholic university.  The bishops and the president serve the same citizens of the same country. It is in the interests of both the church and the nation if both work together in civility, honesty and friendship for the common good, even where there are grave divisions, as there are on abortion.

But it does not improve the likelihood of making progress on this and other issues of common concern if we adopt the clenched fist approach. The president has given ample evidence that he is a man of good will, of keen intelligence, desirous of listening and capable of weighing seriously other views. The Directory for the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops, citing Augustine, points out that “ Certain situations cannot be resolved with asperity or hardness” and goes on to say “(B)ecause his daily pastoral concerns give the Bishop greater scope for personal decision-making, his scope for error is also greater, however good his intentions: this thought should encourage him to remain open to dialog with others, always ready to learn, to seek and accept the advice of others.”

Most Rev. John R. Quinn is archbishop emeritus of San Francisco, Calif.

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Antonius | 4/1/2009 - 8:23am
Fair enough questions, but here's another one: If the President is NOT disinvited, do you think it's more or less likely other universities and lip-service Catholic institutions will follow suit in blatantly disobeying the eminently prudent directive of the US Bishops' Conference that those who support principles antithetical to the Church's — as Obama does about life and has proven since January — should not receive honors, awards or platforms? The scandalous behavior on the part of those who pretend to know better than the bishops will only worsen.
Elias Nasser | 4/1/2009 - 7:14am
when one looks at the landscape of the USCCB, where is there the wisdom, the sense of proportion, the CAtholicity that we see emanating from the pen of Archbishop Quinn? The present USCCB is just a shadow of that same group of bishops from the 1980's Meanwhile, we see the Catholic Church in the US tearing itself into shreds What is such a tragic spectacle doing to the mission of the church? where is the leadership to cut through this mess?
JOHN MCCARTHY MR | 4/1/2009 - 6:55am
In my opinion, the Archbishop has skirted the central issue. The central issue is whether ND was right or wrong in bestowing this honor upon the President. Archbishop Quinn does not answer that question. The issue as to whether ND should rescind or retract the honor is a separate question
Francis Clinch | 4/1/2009 - 12:43am
This is the most sane and measured writing about this issue I have found. Brilliant.
Teresa Collett | 3/31/2009 - 11:18pm
The arguments posed as questions in this commentary are deeply disappointing, primarily because they obfuscates the key question posed by the Notre Dame invitation and honorary degree: Does the Church stand for the protection of all human beings, even the tiniest among us, or does it value "cooperation" on lesser issues above the lives of our unborn brothers and sisters? His Excellency's use of the word "cooperation" is striking, in so far as it is used in defense of what many of the faithful believe is the "co-opting" of what was once perceived to be a great Catholic university. The President's record of cooperation with the Church on advancing protection of all human lives is striking. He has authorized federal funding for the deliberate creation of embryonic children, who are to be used for research then killed. He has expanded the funding of international "family planning" to include abortion as a form of family planning. He has directed officials in the State Department to create an international "right to abortion" in the agreements developed at the United Nations. He seeks to withdraw federal regulations protecting healthcare workers and institutions against unconscionable demands that they participate in the destruction of human lives. It is difficult to image a record of less cooperation in his short term of office. We are cautioned that concerns about public image of the Church should dictate, if not support, at least silence about the message Notre Dame conveys to its students and all observers regarding what the Church values. Such silence, however, would convey our acquiesance in the idea that this President's record is one to be honored -- that his accomplishments as President in other areas outweigh the death sentence imposed on the unborn by his policies. I beg to differ on the evidence presented by President Obama's record. Finally, and this is the most disturbing argument of all, we are told that to express outrage with the scandal caused by Notre Dame's actions can be seen as evidence of racial bigotry. Catholics who take seriously the teaching of the Church on the primacy of the right to life deserve better than this from one who is charged with the protection of souls. This is not a question of separation of Church and State, although those are certainly present in the government's attempt to force Catholic doctors and hospitals to provide abortions. This is a question of what the Church holds up to its own as worthy of honor and emulation. The America is gravely mistaken in his analysis and his commentary.
Joe Murray | 3/31/2009 - 10:51pm
Retired Archbishop John R. Quinn has brought a razor mind to a difficult situation. I believe it is good that we are having a dialogue about Catholic identity. On the other hand Cardinal Francis George sees the situation more in black and white terms, lacking Bishop Quinn's understanding of the complexity of the situation. One calls us to reason and think, the other calls us to obey. Which I wonder promotes the mission of the Church, authority or reason. It is good that Catholics have finally begin to talk about their identity in relationship to the Church's mission. Joe Murray Rainbow Sash Movement
MICHAEL WALSH REV | 3/31/2009 - 9:42pm
I guess Archbishop Quinn would never have wanted to embarras Hitler if Quinn had lived at that period of time. Sometimes, Archbishop, we must do the right thing. Also did you protest when the Democratic Party refused to invite your brother Archbishop Chaput to the Democratic City which was in Denver?
MICHAEL WALSH REV | 3/31/2009 - 9:42pm
I guess Archbishop Quinn would never have wanted to embarras Hitler if Quinn had lived at that period of time. Sometimes, Archbishop, we must do the right thing. Also did you protest when the Democratic Party refused to invite your brother Archbishop Chaput to the Democratic City which was in Denver?


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The Strengths of Priests Today (July 1, 2002)
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