Where do we go from here? As the political leaders of our nation begin to debate such morally significant issues as universal health care, conscience regulations and immigration reform, how does the Catholic Church – its hierarchy and its laity – go forward after the spectacle at Notre Dame?
The bishops snubbed President Obama. Catholics, from the far right to the far left, understand that ours is a hierarchical church, yet there was no one from the hierarchy to welcome the President of the United States to our Catholic educational system’s flagship university. Worse, they let their opposition spin out of control and it played out in such a way that it looked like they were marching to orders from the Republican National Committee. They surely did not intend that, and they surely see the danger of the Church’s moral teachings being turned into a partisan cudgel, but they need to figure out a way to both express their moral concerns and not appear hyper-partisan.
Father Jenkins certainly did as much yesterday, stating clearly and unequivocally that the Catholic Church disagrees with the President on abortion and stem cell research while praising his personal and political achievements in other regards. It was not rude of him to point out the disagreement, nor was it partisan, but his words – and the fine speech of Judge Noonan – gave expression to the ambivalence so many of us Catholics feel about the President. We see this man of such talent and such largeness of heart and do not understand how he can not extend that heart to a real concern for the unborn. But, that is no reason to demonize him. And, many of us feel that it was no reason to boycott the ceremonies yesterday. It is a reason to pray for him, to engage him as often as possible, pointing out what we see as mistakes, but also challenging those who think it a moral outrage to share the stage with this obviously morally serious public servant.
The laity must do their part. You can bet that most bishops have received plenty of phone calls and letters and emails from conservatives in the past two months. I wish that as many liberals would have done the same. But, more than that, I hope that all Catholics make their views known to their bishop. I hope that those who feel conflicted because of the President’s pro-choice position alongside his demonstrable commitments to policies that evoke long-standing objectives in Catholic social thought, that they will especially make their positions known.
This is important in the light of the still current argument that it was a sin to vote for Obama. I believe that this argument is nonsense. I agree entirely that it may be a sin to vote for a pro-choice politician because he or she is pro-choice. But, in the last election, we had the choice between two men, both of whom were committed to funding embryonic stem cell research, neither of whom promised an end to abortion upon inauguration, and only one of whom, Barack Obama, had committed himself to a strategy for reducing the abortion rate. The GOP may talk about ending abortion, but they have done little to achieve that, and so voters could – in good conscience – decide that the real moral differences between the parties lay elsewhere, such as their views on humane immigration reform or the appropriateness of torture.
We all have a lot to do. Every Catholic should read the President’s speech. There was much in it that was good, even while I think it fell short. It is one of the problems Obama must contend with that his talent raises all of our expectations. But, Catholics should raise their expectations of themselves. The bishops are capable of finding a way to express their concern and their admiration at the same time and so are the rest of us. Yes we can.