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The Stakes at Notre Dame

Posted on May 7, 2009
Notre Dame basilica
UND / Ben Franske

Part of the ceiling in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on the University of Notre Dame campus in South Bend, Ind.

By E.J. Dionne Jr.

You have heard the expression “more Catholic than the pope.” We now know that the reaction of right-wing Catholics to Notre Dame’s invitation to President Obama falls into this category.

To the dismay of many conservatives, the Vatican’s own newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, has offered what one anti-abortion Catholic blog called “a surprisingly positive assessment of the new president’s approach to life issues”—so positive, in fact, that a spokesman for the National Right to Life Committee was moved to criticize Pope Benedict XVI’s daily.

The Vatican newspaper offered its analysis at a time when Catholic liberals and conservatives are battling fiercely over Notre Dame’s decision to invite the president as this year’s commencement speaker and to grant him an honorary degree. The article will strengthen the liberal claim that the Catholic right’s over-the-top response is rooted at least as much in Republican and conservative politics as in concern over the abortion question.

The April 29 essay by Giuseppe Fiorentino, L’Osservatore’s frequent foreign affairs contributor, painted Obama as a moderate on many fronts. “Some have accused him of practicing excessive statism,” Fiorentino wrote, “if not even of making the country drift toward socialism.” But “a calmer analysis,” he said, suggests that Obama “has moved with caution.” (I rely here on a translation of the article posted Wednesday on the Vatican’s official Web site.)

On abortion and the other life issues, the article concluded that Obama “does not seem to have established the radical changes that he had aired.”


Square, Site wide

In loosening the rules on federal funding of stem-cell research, the paper noted, Obama did not go as far as many in the anti-abortion movement feared he would. “The new guidelines regarding embryonic stem cell research do not in fact follow the prospected change of route laid out months ago,” Fiorentino wrote. “They do not allow for the creation of new embryos for research or therapy purposes, for cloning or reproductive ends; and federal funds can only be used for experimentation with surplus embryos.”

Then came a carefully worded sentence declaring that “these measures do not eliminate the reasons for criticism in the face of unacceptable forms of bioengineering that work against the embryo’s human identity, but the new regulations are less permissive than expected.”

This restrained view contrasts with charges that Obama is the “most radical pro-abortion president in history,” words used earlier this year on the Christian Coalition’s Web site. During the campaign, Robert P. George, a Princeton professor who is a leading Catholic conservative intellectual, called Obama “the most extreme pro-abortion candidate ever to seek the office of president of the United States.”

The consternation on the right over the Vatican article was immediate. Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee in the U.S., told that L’Osservatore’s assessment was “not helpful” and that “there’s nothing middle of the road about the substantive policies that this administration is pursuing on life issues.”

Rank-and-file Catholics do not share in the conservatives’ gloominess. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that two-thirds of Catholics approved of Obama’s performance in office. Pew also reported that 50 percent of Catholics thought Notre Dame was right to invite Obama, while only 28 percent said the invitation was wrong. Even among Catholics who attend Mass at least once a week, opinion was divided evenly, with 39 percent supporting and 39 percent opposing the invitation.

Largely lost in the Notre Dame furor is the extent to which the ferocity on the Catholic right has emboldened moderate and liberal Catholics to fight back.

The current issue of America magazine, published by the Jesuits, includes a sharply worded editorial criticizing the “divisive effects of the new American sectarians” which “have not escaped the notice of the Vatican.”

“Their highly partisan political edge has become a matter of concern,” the editors write. “That they never demonstrate the same high dudgeon at the compromises, unfulfilled promises and policy disagreements with Republican politicians as with Democratic ones is plain for all to see. It is time to call this one-sided denunciation by its proper name: political partisanship.”

And so when Obama rises to speak at Notre Dame on May 17, the stakes will be highest for moderate and liberal Catholics who insist the president is seeking common ground on the moment’s most contentious ethical issues.

It is likely to be his most consequential intervention in the debate over religion’s role in American politics. In accepting the invitation, Obama has assumed a large responsibility that he should not try to escape.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)
© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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By melpol, May 16, 2009 at 5:09 pm Link to this comment

It is not the fetus that anti-abortion activists are protecting. They are protecting the idea that God not the individual decides what is moral. But there are those that have their own moral compass and believe they have a right to their own private lives. The battle of Notre Dame is between the individual and the collective. It will be won by free thinkers not by those that want to chain the mind.

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By tomack, May 13, 2009 at 8:15 am Link to this comment

Good comments all—except for the one Wack-Job. Eugen’s was on the money though, being a Prot myself and never really believing from the get go, I know many others like that. There is no religous afiliation line drawn when it comes to being an Atheist, it’s about inteligence, logic, and “applied intuition”.

Really, anyone can do it! You just have to believe…

And by the way, Wack-Job, it’s not murder.

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By Gloria Picchetti, May 13, 2009 at 4:57 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

J. Bridy, I fear for your safety. Don’t become a public speaker. People hate the truth. You could get stoned (as in rocks) by an angry mob. Honestly, very well said.

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By J. Bridy, May 12, 2009 at 8:43 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

If the same Catholics who believe in the Jesus who regularly broke bread with Jews who collected onerous taxes for the hated pagan Roman Empire, the empathic Jesus who restored a Roman officer’s stricken servant to health, the bold and forgiving Jesus who publicly forgave the sins of condemned prostitutes, if these same followers of Jesus could see clear to imitating their Master in more than self serving claims, but in their words and actions, then President Obama would be welcomed to speak at any Catholic institution of higher learning anywhere in the world. To His true servants, the Master’s example is not just history, but a way of life. It is the Way, the Truth and the Life, not the “no way but the highway” so common and so callously practiced in this worldly and endlessly violent and uncharitable era.

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By Eugen, May 12, 2009 at 10:25 am Link to this comment

The world will depopulate sooner or later. Wouldn’t it be better if we planned it rather than let mother nature do it for us? That mother doesn’t have any compassion.

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By melpol, May 12, 2009 at 10:00 am Link to this comment

Holy rollers and Sadists have a lot in common. They both like to see a welfare mother wheeling along a bunch of ragged toddlers hanging on to her tattered dress. Those that are thrilled by this scene are child abusers. Truly kind people believe that if you cannot afford or want it—-abort it.

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By rollzone, May 10, 2009 at 9:31 pm Link to this comment

hello. in the name of the Holy Mother of God, on Her Day, you should wash your mouth with soap for such sacriligious abasement of what you yourself cannot hear. welcome our celebrity in the cathedral, as you would any other presiding leader, and allow him to speak his mind. he may water his words. he may speak as a candidate again: and try to say what he thinks they want to hear. if he stirs divisive controversy; he knows he will be a one-termer. stop trying to inflame what will result in God’s will, and let the ... speak. it’s a big waste of my tax dollars.

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By konnie, May 10, 2009 at 8:03 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

i live in the shadow of golden dome…........a former catholic….......but not an athiest by any means.  i do however agree with Rev. Jenkins that the
church rules only apply to catholics.  last time i checked
our president is not a member.  ergo, he is exempt from agreeing with the teaching of the catholic church.  This bruhaha has nothing to do with Obama and everything to do with a small hardcore group of protestors “stirring the pile” to get publicity for their cause. a lost cause
i might add. 
i personally believe that unless you have supported a pregnant woman for 9 months, and adopted her baby
as your own, every 9 months for your whole life, then
you have no right to interfer, or even voice opposition.  you may however go into your prayer closet and pray. that’s the only thing
you should be permitted to do.

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By mandinka, May 8, 2009 at 7:45 pm Link to this comment

Bob murder is still murder and no they aren’t shooting themselves in the foot its called morality something you totally lack

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By Archie1954, May 8, 2009 at 12:29 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Everyone seems to be under the impression that the president is in favor of abortion. I don’t believe that is the case at all. I don’t think he or his wife would ever personally contemplate abortion. What he is in favor of is the decision being left to the parties in question and their doctor. That is not the same as saying he is in favor of abortion. It’s far from it. All he is doing is making it possible for the only people involved with such a personal matter to make the decision without the state stepping in.

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By BobZ, May 8, 2009 at 11:52 am Link to this comment

Notre Dame appears to be more relevant as a Catholic institution than the Catholic church itself. Why do so many of the Catholic leadership hierarchy continue to shoot themselves in the feet with their clearly out of step comments. No wonder so many of faith are bailing out from organized religion. Organized religion just isn’t relevant in the 21st century with their extreme dogmatic viewpoints. And of course these bishops are hypocrites to boot with their criticism of Obama while they condoned Bush killing millions of innocent Iraqis in an unnecessary war. They let politics get in the way of their faith.

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By fedupvet, May 8, 2009 at 9:05 am Link to this comment

Who`s going to cover up all the “Jesus” images?

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By Gloria Picchetti, May 8, 2009 at 6:25 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I do not understand. Why would Notre Dame ask a president who supports abortion to speak at their Catholic university graduation? Why would he accept since it is causing so much trouble for the Catholics? When will the separation of church & state be honored? The United States of America is not a Christian country. The Constitution allows individuals the right to practice their chosen religion, no more no less. Ever since the Bush administration I have not set foot in a church except for weddings, christenings, funerals, or tourism. When they took the Teri Schiavo case to the government organized religion lost me except for some chartiable causes I support that happen to be run by religious groups. The Constitution of the United States of America gives me the right to do so.

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By Eugen, May 8, 2009 at 6:06 am Link to this comment

purple girl, your argument that atheists are X-Catholics and X-Jews is wrong. I grew up in a Lutheran household. I started not to believe when I was 12 while going to confirmation class. After my parents retired they went to church regularly but just before my mother died she confided in me that her and my father didn’t believe either. Many protestants in Europe ceased to believe after WW II. Poland, Spain and Italy probably have fewer atheists so I would say that shoots your theory down. It troubles me that our politicians are required to believe in a god. They are either lying or naive. Try reading The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible. It is an excellent primer.

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By photoshock, May 8, 2009 at 5:55 am Link to this comment

As a ‘cradle Catholic’ one would think that the world was coming to an end when a ‘liberal’ president is invited to speak at the premier Catholic university in America.
The ideal of diversity of thought in universities, especially in American Catholic universities has become anathema to many of the presidents of those universities.  I abhor this lack of trying to understand the other side of any issue, the idea of political correctness in any university is an abomination to the principle of learning and education.
Understand, I am against the Far Right Wing Nuts that
have taken over the American Conference of Catholic Bishops, this is according to the Bible something which is not acceptable, people who minister to the flock should not involve themselves in politics.
The old adage, ‘politics and religion do not mix’ is an adage which is appropriate in this and other social problems.

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By Purple Girl, May 8, 2009 at 5:30 am Link to this comment

someone Check these protesters Catholic Credentials. Really how many hard line Catholics are really left here in the States.
The numerous child molestation cases, Ratz reinstatement of Holocaust deniers,his attempt to spread AIDS with his condom condemnation,The BS they pulled on Kerry…..Oh the List goes on. So what are there 3 hardliner left?
Having Recovered from my brainwashing indoctrination decades ago, I found when meeting Atheists they were former Catholics or Jews. We didn’t just move away from the the Catholic Faith,we had a violent aversion to it.Although I am still adverse to pledging myself to any particular ‘Faith’, I have finally overcome the trauma of being raised in the Guilt Ridden hypocrisy of Catholicism.
If there was any chance of former Catholics coming back to the Church- Ratz has assured we will not, what a POS he is. he’s not jut an embarassment of ignorance, but a disgrace of dishonor.Ratz hasn’t just undone the good Will offered by John Paul, He’s harkened back to the Dark Ages. Ratz has proven his education as a Nazi Youth takes precedence over the Teaching of Christ. Who F*cking Cares what that SOB thinks?
as for Notre Dame- lets go check that all employeed and attending are card carrying Catholics and have adhered to every facet of their rituals….Been to confession lately? Done your Hail Mary’s?Let’s see you knees- any callous’? How about your finger tips- any burns from lighting candles?What did you eat last Friday, attend a Fish Fry? Didn’t think so.

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