A Critical Moment: 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.”