Bishop: Obama vs. Dialogue

Father Jenkins and Obama.
Father Jenkins and Obama. (photo: CNS photo/Christopher Smith)

Dr. Obama Dashes Dialogue at ND: Cites Irreconcilable Differences

A Register column
by Bishop Robert W. Finn
Of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo.

I tuned into the May 17 Notre Dame graduation for the obvious reasons. I was particularly interested in this cultural watershed that united scores of American bishops and countless others who could not fathom why President Barack Obama should be granted the platform and a doctoral degree honoris causa by a Catholic university.

In his commencement address at Notre Dame, President Obama cleared the air concerning his intentions in the abortion wars. “Understand,” Dr. Obama directed, “I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. No matter how much we want to fudge it … the fact is that … the views of the two camps are irreconcilable.”

Over the last months, 60 or 70 bishops have offered, with various degrees of intensity, their own comments and advice about a prominent Catholic university inviting and honoring a president who has a clear policy stance and track record in support of unregulated abortion on demand. I consider it a meaningful show of solidarity, and I believe it has a powerful supernatural merit, even if it is not immediately successful in the charge to transform the culture.

In June of 2004, as a brand new bishop, I attended my first U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ meeting in Denver. There was animated debate about whether Catholic politicians who support abortion should be denied holy Communion. Suffice it to say the bishops did not reach consensus on that question. But we did issue a kind of “least common denominator” or compromise statement that seemed obvious at the time: Catholics who persistently hold an anti-life position ought not to be given a platform or honors by Catholic institutions. The statement received strong support.

President Obama, of course, is not Catholic. But many of us have made the extrapolation that for Notre Dame to provide him a platform as commencement speaker and to create him doctor honoris causa constitutes the same contradiction. It would be hard to deny that this incident has created a stir. What Notre Dame did was clearly dismissive of the principle which five years ago seemed so obviously important.

I think it is fair to say that Father John Jenkins, president of Notre Dame, didn’t “get it.” There were high hopes for him once upon a time, at least until he allowed Notre Dame to join “The Vagina Monologues” club in the name of academic freedom.

His introduction of President Obama on May 17 was a real piece of work in three parts. After congratulating the graduates, he spent the first third of his talk describing the debate of the last months. His characterization was full of hard words: He spoke of division, self-pride (in others), contempt, demonization, anger, hate, distortion, condemnation and hostility. I wondered if these barbs were directed, by Father Jenkins, against the hundreds of thousands of folks, including many Notre Dame alumni, who opposed the university’s decision.

Part two of Father Jenkins introduction was about dialogue. I count six uses of the word, and he quoted Pope Benedict, Ex Corde Ecclesiae and Vatican II, to drive home his point that the university must be a place of discovery and dialogue. Somewhat absent was the mandatum to teach and defend transcendent truth from the juncture of faith and reason. I found him rather convincing nonetheless — and thought, by the repeated ovations his comments received, that the audience wished to associate themselves with this openness rather than the “hateful divisiveness” by which the critics of his choice were characterized.

Part three was the proximate introduction in which he expressed his admiration for the president and his accomplishments.

I’ve never met President Obama, but those who have tell me I would like him. There was good banter in his opening greeting and comments on sports, and he praised Father Jenkins for the “outstanding job” he was doing as president and the priest’s courageous commitment to honest dialogue. But, it was just halfway through Mr. Obama’s address that he said that our views — his views and commitment to promote abortion and those opposing abortion — were irreconcilable. I thought I heard the dialogue come to a screeching halt.

I might have thought that, at this point, Father Jenkins’ head would drop — all that hoped-for dialogue now dashed in this acknowledgment that the president had no intention of changing. But throughout the honoree’s address, Father Jenkins stood up with (nearly) everyone else and applauded.

In the remainder of his talk, President Obama offered the ground rules for going forward. He told a story of a Christian pro-life doctor who had thought of withdrawing his support for then Candidate Obama, unless he would start using “fair-minded words” when speaking about abortion. The doctor was willing to vote for Obama, despite his support for abortion, provided he would stop referring to “pro-lifers” as “right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman’s right to choose.”

It seemed as though the whole arena collectively nodded in agreement: that from now on we would use civil speech to oppose even the most thoroughly uncivilized policies, policies that promote a loss of approximately 4,000 human lives each day in our country.

I must admit I was equally dismayed and confused by the speech of Judge John Noonan, the university’s 2009 “place holder” for Dr. Mary Ann Glendon, who had meaningfully declined the Laetare Medal.

In the course of his talk, this Catholic scholar and former recipient of the prestigious award asked everyone to agree that “we have some things in common” and that “some things all of us know are wrong: Genocide is wrong; torture is wrong; slavery is wrong.” I was fine with these things, but kept waiting for him to say abortion is wrong. But it seems he couldn’t bring himself to say it. That, the judge seemed to say, was still a matter for debate — and the fair game of conflicting consciences.

I suppose the Notre Dame debacle is over now, and I want to ask: Can we stop “fudging” now? Isn’t it time, and didn’t the president — with refreshing candor — give us permission to get on with the work of peacefully, prayerfully, legally, but earnestly protecting human life?

We should thank Mr. Obama that he didn’t mince words (entirely). He admitted in a terribly forthright manner that, on this issue of abortion, he has absolutely no intention of changing. He wants an amicable divorce on the grounds of irreconcilable differences.

We have to decide now: What do we want? And what are we obliged to work for?