Is all this bluster over Notre Dame's commencement ceremony honors for President Obama simply in-house spring cleaning for the American Catholic Church? Not by a long shot.
The deeper question is whether it is ever suitable, in Catholic environments or elsewhere, to acclaim a man as an icon of accomplishment in the arena of civil rights when he has proposed, instituted and funded policies which deny the fundamental dignity of an entire category of disenfranchised human beings.
The debate over the University of Notre Dame's plan to bestow an honorary doctorate upon Obama this month is much more than a local tempest in a purely Catholic teapot.
The question is crucial to the interests of all Americans. At its heart, it is a battle for the very soul of our nation, a battle over whom we include at the table of life and how far our society is willing to go to exclude those who are not welcome at it.
As has been widely discussed these past weeks, some prominent educators have supported Father Jenkins' invitation as part of a process of open academic engagement, one that recognizes Obama's significance as the first African-American chief executive and that touches upon a broad spectrum of social and political issues.
Others, Harvard's Mary Ann Glendon most notable among them, have cited the bishops' 2004 guidance "Catholics in Political Life" in questioning whether a premier Catholic university can honor with a degree a man who has acted "in defiance of our fundamental moral principles."
The president's public record makes clear that he is no moderate on the moral permissibility of abortion and embryonic destruction. Any suggestion otherwise is a distortion of reality and insults the intelligence of the American people. In his first 100 days in office, he approved federal funding for research that destroys human embryos and repealed restrictions on the use of tax dollars to support abortions conducted overseas.
At the same time, he appointed hard-line abortion rights supporters such as Hillary Clinton, Kathleen Sebelius and Rahm Emanuel to the most prominent positions in his cabinet and staff.
As a U.S. senator, Barack Obama co-sponsored the Freedom of Choice Act, which would make it illegal for any physician or hospital to conscientiously refrain from committing abortions.
While an Illinois legislator, he opposed a ban on partial-birth abortion, the macabre procedure in which a near-term abortee's brains are suctioned from the skull while arms, legs and torso dangle outside the mother's birth canal. Critics of water boarding step aside; we are in the big time.
President Obama's general defense of a woman's control over her body rests on rock-solid foundations, but his ethic and the policies built upon it err in failing to recognize that there is always a "second patient" in any pregnancy.
In this administration's worldview, the mother holds all the cards, the embryo or fetus none. Sound medical practice recognizes that, just as the president's position on life does not exist in a vacuum, neither does a patient's autonomy.
Both the mother's freedom of action and her unborn child's humanity are factors at play in every decision during any pregnancy or delivery.
Barack Obama's election was indeed a historic event, especially as a great sign of the more complete and substantive incorporation of a long-excluded minority in the American political and social experiment.
That accomplishment notwithstanding, the president's policies and publicly stated philosophy push a profoundly marginalized group further into the cold — his actions afford them no moral status and moreover directly harm them.
This is a grave abrogation of the civil rights of the unborn, and our social institutions, Catholic or otherwise, cannot blithely ignore Mr. Obama's full cooperation in this injustice while handing out lauds for his other achievements.
William Blazek, a Jesuit scholastic, is an
assistant professor of medicine and medical ethicist in the Center for Clinical
Bioethics at Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington. He is a
fellow of the American College of Physicians.