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SDA2Catholic: Obama at Notre Dame

I’ve asked our friends over at the Seventh-day Adventist to Roman Catholic blog to provide some Adventist/Catholic insight into the brouhaha over President Barack Obama giving the commencement address at Notre Dame University. After reading Hendrik Hertzberg’s New YorkerComment” on the matter, I invited both Hugo Mendenz and Brandon Ogden to share their thoughts in conversation with the New Yorker article and the state of Adventist/Catholic understanding.


Hendrik Hertzberg’s column “College Try” neatly explains the controversy surrounding Obama’s appearances at the Arizona State and Notre Dame commencement ceremonies. His treatment of the Catholic response to Obama’s Notre Dame visit, however, has its faults, betraying the weaknesses of an “outsider” perspective. Perhaps it is best that a Catholic digest his article for an Adventist readership.

Certainly, it is a privilege to host an American president in any context. President Obama’s visit to Notre Dame, like those of his eight predecessors, is a compliment to the American Catholic experience. However, Obama’s pro-choice stance was controversial among Catholics during the election season, and remain controversial now that they are government policies.

The Catholic Church embraces causes typical of both the “right” and “left.” She resists abortion, embryonic stem cell research, and homosexual unions, but believes in the redistribution of wealth, opposes unjust war, and is liberal on immigration. On election day, Catholics face the difficult task of prioritizing these issues, and selecting the candidate capable of producing the highest good. Some bishops explicitly encourage the prioritization of “life” issues, though most avoid such judgments. Those bishops that prioritize the pro-life cause note that the Church defines abortion (like torture, slavery, etc.) as an “intrinsic evil,” which can never be justified. On the other hand, other issues (e.,g., poverty, healthcare), however vital, admit various perspectives and solutions.

In light of these facts, Hertzberg’s reassurances that “Obama is not such an easy target” for Catholics is less than convincing. For instance, the Church calls upon Catholics to actively oppose embryonic stem cell research. Upon his election, however, Obama directly reversed gains made by the pro-life community during the Bush administration. Furthermore, Hertzberg’s rehabilitation of Obama’s decision “to cancel the so-called “global gag rule,” which denied funds to overseas family-planning organizations that also offer abortion services” lacks Catholic contextualization. His column contends these organizations would, in fact, reduce the total number of abortions by distributing contraceptives. Has he forgotten artificial contraception is also immoral in Catholic faith? Is he also aware that actively facilitating some abortion is still immoral in Catholic moral theology, even in the name of reducing the total number of abortions (as “means never justify ends”)? Hertzberg praises “Obama’s approach—practical, nonideological, “pro-choice” but hardly pro-abortion” as the best possible approach; in the Church’s eyes, however, it is a poor substitute for the pro-life approach of the Bush administration.

Still, individual Catholics are hardly uniform in their response to Obama’s pro-choice stance. As Hertzberg rightly observes, “the controversy about Obama’s Notre Dame appearance” emerges from “divisions within the American Catholic community.” However, his assessment that ”the real division is between social conservatives, on the one hand, and social moderates and liberals, on the other, not between Catholics and non-Catholics” is inadequate. No one disputes the fact that this debate is being fought between professed Catholics. However, those holding more “conservative” stances do so precisely out of an explicit fidelity to the teaching of the Catholic Church. Hertzberg cites several statistics indicating, “more Catholics would keep abortion legal in all or most cases,” and that there is “practically no difference between Catholics and non-Catholics on embryonic stem-cell research.” But who are these “Catholics?” Polls conducted by Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (Georgetown University) indicate that 56% of professed Catholics attend Mass at most “a few times a year,” with 32% of those claiming to attend “rarely or never.” Statistically, those whom Hertzberg labels “social conservatives” are likeliest to be the Catholics most fully integrated into the practice of Catholic faith.

This is the issue, of course: integration into Catholic faith. Catholics protesting Notre Dame’s decision fear that the University is losing its Catholic identity, by displaying a passivity towards Pres. Obama’s record on abortion inconsistent with the evangelistic aims of a “Catholic university.” A “Catholic university,” John Paul II asserted, manifests ”institutional fidelity. . . to the Christian message,” including “a recognition of and adherence to the teaching authority of the Church in matters of faith and morals” (“Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” 27). According to the Unites States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), this requires that “Catholic institutions. . . not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.” (“Catholics in Political Life.”) For many, Notre Dame is betraying its “Catholic” identity by disregarding this injunction.

Francis Cardinal George, the Archbishop of Chicago and USCCB president, may have said it best: “It is clear that Notre Dame didn’t understand what it means to be Catholic when they issued this invitation.”

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