What Would Gibbons Do About Notre Dame?
President Obama has completed his first 100 days. The calendar has always seemed an odd way to connote significance but time is a thing we humans have long enjoyed measuring so I suppose it is as good a marker as any for assessing the new Chief Magistrate.
If you read only the statements by some American bishops in the past few weeks, you would have thought the sky was falling. The language used by certain prelates, in chastising Notre Dame’s decision to award the President an honorary degree, has been disrespectful to say the least. Intended or not, someof the more vocal members of the hierarchy have given the impression that even sharing the stage with President Obama is a moral outrage. "Utterly appalled" said Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz. "Scandalous" was one of the kind adjectives applied by Bishop Robert Finn. Funny, I seem to remember a story in the Scriptures in which the Pharisees used precisely such language when Jesus of Nazareth broke bread with tax collectors and sinners.
Dr. Mary Ann Glendon certainly seems to think it a moral impossibility to share the stage with the President. Given the fact that her last employer, the Bush administration, committed torture which is, last time I checked, an intrinsic moral evil, it is rich to hear her lecturing about moral outrage. I do not doubt Dr. Glendon acted sincerely. She just acted as a sincere Republican. I hope the bishops who are in such high dudgeon about Obama will demand that Dr. Glendon be forbidden from receiving any Catholic honors until she renounces her association with the Bush administration. Unlike Obama, after all, she is a Catholic and clearly falls under the prohibition of such awards to those who violate the Church’s fundamental moral beliefs made in the 2004 document "Catholics in Political Life."
The view from the Vatican is, to put it mildly, far different. Yesterday’s L’Osservatore Romano noted the President’s cautiousness and moderation, including on life issues. "Even on ethical questions -- which, from the electoral campaign, have been the forceful concern of the Catholic episcopate -- Obama doesn't seem to have confirmed the radical changes he had aired." it said. That translates as: FOCA is never gonna happen so relax. Certainly, L’Osservatore Romano did not hurl upon Obama the sobriquet thrown at him from some, including some U.S.bishops, that he is "the most pro-abortion president" in history. The Pope’s newspaper even commended him for seeking to limit the number of abortions by supporting the "Pregnant Women Support Act," a bill that has also won the endorsement of Cardinal Justin Rigali.
The fact is that while we Catholics understand abortion to be not just one issue among many but a foundational issue, the country as a whole is todayprimarily concerned that the President fix the economy. While we recognize that our concern for the unborn springs from the same part of the Catholic heart as our concern for the poor, for the immigrant, for those who lack health care, many voters concluded that the Republicans were paying lip service on abortion and it was better to vote our moral conscience on these other issues where we are already seeing a difference. We do not see how other people of good will can fail to see the horror of abortion, but most people are ambivalent about the issue even though there is no ambiguity about the horrific torture memos we are reading. I honor and commend those bishops who must be frustrated that so little has changed since Roe and I always want to see our Church saying, insistently, even when others grow weary of our words, our commitment to the unborn is integral to who we are as Catholics. But, the bishops must find a way to articulate that concern that does not make them look like partisans sniping at the President.
In short, the whole nation is pulling for President Obama and leading Catholics treat him as a pariah. It is bizarre and it is tragic.
I do not wish to lay blame and I am sure there is plenty to go around. But, can we change the impression that the Catholic Church is hostile to this President whom the nation continues to embrace, not just to his position on abortion? Can the Notre Dame situation and all it represents be redeemed? “Spes Salvi!” said Pope Benedict XVI. Cardinal Francis George recently said that he intends no disrespect to the President nor does he question his good faith. As president of the Episcopal Conference, Cardinal George should consider designating a member of the hierarchy to go to Notre Dame for commencement, both to welcome the President and to explain to him why his coming causes us ambivalence, why our concern for the unborn is so central to our Catholic identity. There is a way for the hierarchy to voice its concern about abortion in a way that is respectful to the President and they need to find it, preferably by May 17 when the President comes to Notre Dame.
In the next hundred days, the administration will begin dealing with health care, immigration reform, environmental policy and the conscience regulations, all areas of specific and profound concern to the Catholic Church. The way he has been treated, Obama would be within his just rights to bar all members of the hierarchy from those discussions. Certainly, the vituperative language of some bishops has had the effect of strengthening the hand of those within the administration who wish to fight the Church’s position on an issue like the conscience regulations. “Why listen to people who have tried to publicly embarrass you?” they can ask the President during internal administration debates. He does not seem like the kind of man who holds a grudge. Nor is it ever in the long-term interest of a politician to court public fights with clerics. But, it is now incumbent upon the hierarchy as a whole to find a way to reach out to President Obama. If they manage to lower passions before Notre Dame’s commencement, all the better: The pictures of a President shunned by the hierarchy will only make it more difficult to heal the breach after May 17.
During another challenging time in our Church’s history I had the good fortune to be a student in Msgr. John Tracy Ellis’s classroom. Msgr. had written the definitive biography of Cardinal James Gibbons and he considered Gibbons a model of effective Episcopal ministry. On that day he said, “Oh, James, where are you when we need you?” Perhaps, at episcopal ordinations we should give new bishops a bracelet like many teenagers wear today, only instead of the acronym WWJD, it would have the letters WWGD: What would Gibbons do? In the current controversy, I think Gibbons would find a way to be on that stage at Notre Dame.