The bishops of the United States will meet in San Antonio next month and there is a new agenda item for them: Deal with the fallout from the controversy surrounding Notre Dame’s bestowal of an honorary degree upon the President.
At the center of that debate has been a document the bishops issued in 2004 entitled "Catholics in Political Life." As the title indicates, it was unclear to many of us, including Notre Dame’s President, Father John Jenkins, C.S.C., why a document so entitled would even apply to President Obama who is not a Catholic at all. And the text was issued by a committee set up to focus on (and the text only refers to) "Catholic politicians." Bishop John D’Arcy replied that if there was any question, Father Jenkins should have asked him. To clarify for everyone, however, the bishops need to decide if the document and the strictures it contemplates are meant to apply to everyone or just to Catholics.
Most opponents of Notre Dame’s decision to honor the President focused on one part of the text: "The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles." Now, it is a fair question whether Barack Obama, in promising policies that seek to reduce the abortion rate, is acting in defiance of anyone’s fundamental moral principles. (The abortion reduction language he used throughout the campaign and again at Notre Dame certainly annoys and angers some pro-choice activists.) There was a time when Catholics could be skeptical of the claim by some that they were "pro-choice but not pro-abortion" but Obama seems to making that a distinction with a difference.
It is also the case that virtually every American politician acts in defiance of some fundamental principle of the Catholic Church. Former Vice-President Dick Cheney is justifying the use of torture (and his arguments are echoed on EWTN) by invoking the age old maxim that the ends justify the means, but that is a utilitarian principle not a Catholic one. Nor is the recourse to the category of intrinsic evil much help here. Lots of things are intrinsically evil including birth control and as I have pointed out before there is not a mayor nor a governor who does not sign a budget that funds some form of birth control policy.
Commentators have tended to ignore the second sentence in the document’s bullet point on the conferral of honors: "They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions." Now, I thought Father Jenkins made it very clear, both in his initial announcement in March and at the commencement ceremony on Sunday, that Notre Dame was not honoring the President because of his positions on abortion and embryonic stem cell research but for his other notable accomplishments. The bishops may want to strike this sentence and say – do not honor these guys period. But, any fair-minded person would be wrong to fault Father Jenkins for violating this document when you read it in its entirety.
So, the bishops have their work cut out for themselves at San Antonio. I suspect that at the end of the day, the authority of the local bishop in such matters will, and should, be highlighted. As Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, one of the most thoughtful and theologically sophisticated bishops in the country, wrote in his weekly column last week discussing this very document, "While everyone may not agree with how an individual bishop applies this principle for institutions within his own diocese, it, nonetheless, is the bishop's call." That may not make everyone happy – indeed, it won’t make everyone happy. But, the central role of the bishop as teacher within his diocese is more important than any political point. Yes, some bishops may turn their universities into intellectual ghettoes, allowed to invite no one with a differing or provocative position to campus. Others will follow James Joyce’s view: "Here comes everybody!" But, as Wuerl said, at the end of the day, in a hierarchical church, it’s the bishop’s call.