Facing down protesters who didn’t want him there, President Obama fought back at Notre Dame not with harsh words but with the most devastating weapons in his political arsenal: a call for “open hearts,” “open minds,” “fair-minded words,” and a search for “common ground.”

There were many messages sent from South Bend on Sunday. Obama’s opponents seek to reignite the culture wars. He doesn’t. They would reduce religious faith to a narrow set of issues. He refused to join them. They often see theological arguments as leading to certainty. He opted for humility.

He did all this without skirting the abortion question and without flinching from the “controversy surrounding my visit here.” The thunderous and repeated applause that greeted Obama and the Rev. John I. Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president who took enormous grief for asking him to appear, stood as a rebuke to those who said the president should not have been invited.

For his part, Obama gave what may have been both the most radical and the most conservative speech of his presidency. Acknowledging the Catholic Church’s role in supporting his early community organizing work, the president drew on the resources of Catholic social thought. It combines opposition to abortion with a sharp critique of economic injustice, and thus doesn’t squeeze into the round holes of contemporary ideology.

“Too many of us view life only through the lens of immediate self-interest and crass materialism,” Obama declared. “The strong too often dominate the weak, and too many of those with wealth and with power find all manner of justification for their own privilege in the face of poverty and injustice.”

Yet his argument drew on very old ideas, notably original sin and the common good. Obama was as explicit in talking about his faith as George W. Bush ever was about his own, but with distinctly different inflections and conclusions.

The former president often emphasized the comfort and certainty he drew from his religious beliefs. Obama said that “the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt.”

“This doubt should not push away our faith,” Obama preached. “But it should humble us. It should temper our passions, cause us to be wary of too much self-righteousness.” It was a quietly pointed response to his critics.

Obama sent many signals to Catholics, extolling such heroes to progressives and moderates as the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, Notre Dame’s former president, and the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago.

He also tried to undo mistakes made early in his administration, making clearer, for example, that his revisions of an earlier Bush executive order on the rights of health professionals would continue to “honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion.”

He paid more respect to opponents of stem cell research — he spoke of their “admirable conviction about the sacredness of life” — than he had in his original announcement altering Bush’s policies.

And on abortion, the issue that ignited the protests against him, Obama endorsed a broad agenda: “Let’s reduce unintended pregnancies. Let’s make adoption more available. Let’s provide care and support for women who do carry their children to term.”

Almost as significant as Obama’s speech were the words of introduction offered by Jenkins. Rather than cower before his critics or apologize, the Notre Dame president warned against the tendency of competing political camps to “demonize each other” and praised Obama for appearing despite the university’s opposition to “his policies on abortion and embryonic stem cell research.”

“As we serve our country, we will be motivated by faith, but we cannot appeal only to faith,” Jenkins said. “We must also engage in a dialogue that appeals to reason that all can accept,” and do so “with love and a generous spirit.”

Although Jenkins made no reference to them, the scriptural readings at Catholic Masses on Sunday drew on St. John’s emphasis on the law of love. “This I command you: Love one another,” Jesus declares in John’s Gospel.

It was a hard message to square with the rage directed toward Obama and Jenkins by their detractors. Yet in raising the stakes entailed in Obama’s visit, the critics did the president a great service.

By facing their arguments head-on and by demonstrating his attentiveness to Catholic concerns, Obama strengthened moderate and liberal forces inside the church itself. He also struck a forceful blow against those who would keep the nation mired in culture-war politics without end. Obama’s opponents on the Catholic Right placed a large bet on his Notre Dame visit. And they lost.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.

© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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