May 21, 2009
Is the pope Catholic? Is Notre Dame?
You bet. While other colleges with origins in the Catholic Church have been in identity crisis for decades, emphasizing "inclusivity" and relegating their religion to the campus ministry office, Notre Dame University has remained unabashedly proud of the Church and the culture of Catholicism as central to campus life.
That's why it was quite a shocking surprise that the president of Notre Dame, Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, invited the president of the United States to speak at the school's commencement exercises. It was also a surprise that Barack Obama accepted.
Both men keenly knew what a fire this could set, a U.S. president committed to abortion rights taking the dias in the intellectual heart of American Catholicism. For months, various bishops had fumed and called on Jenkins to withdraw the invitation, and various Obama supporters had called on him to withdraw the acceptance, fearing a confrontation that might distract from, if not derail, his social and economic agenda.
Neither man backed down.
Introducing the president last Sunday, Jenkins remarked that "he knows well that we are fully supporters of Church teaching on the sanctity of human life, and we oppose his policies on abortion and embryonic stem cell research.
"Others might have avoided this venue for that reason," he continued. "But President Obama is not one who stops talking to those who differ from him."
He quoted the teaching of the Second Vatican Council that "respect and love ought to be extended to those who think or act differently than we do in social, political, and even religious matters."
On that the two presidents stood together.
"When we open up our hearts and our minds to those who do not think precisely as we do or believe precisely what we believe," Obama said in his address, "that's when we discover at least the possibility of common ground."
The possibility of common ground, at least for now, lies not in the essence of the abortion debate — the ontological question of when a human fetus becomes a human being with human rights protectable by law — but in nurturing a social environment that reduces the likelihood of abortions in the first place. In his speech, Obama mentioned making adoption easier and providing "care and support for women who do carry their children to term" — things that the Catholic bishops have long encouraged. He called for means to "reduce unwanted pregnancies" — an oblique allusion to birth control, which the hierarchy opposes but most Catholics support — and for a "sensible conscience clause" for those hospitals and medical personnel that oppose abortion — something that Catholic institutions have demanded and abortion- rights opponents oppose.
What Obama did at Notre Dame was to soften the terms of the debate, appealing to the sensibilities of most Americans, who see abortion neither as murder nor as a woman's unrestricted "right to choose." The mood of the country today — and this includes very many Catholics — is not confrontatory but conciliatory, a pulling back from the ideological extremes and a seeking of a middle path that recognizes both the necessity for medically-safe abortion and responsible restrictions of its use.
Obama's appearance at Notre Dame could not have been more timely, for it focused the nation's attention both on his recent appointment of a White House task force to study the issue and on his upcoming nomination of a Supreme Court justice. The explicit goal of the task force is to seek that heretofore elusive "common ground," and it may be the case that Obama will select a jurist with a common-ground approach as well.
Beyond the possibility of common ground in establishing a public policy that encourages birth and discourages abortion, is it also possible for Obama to initiate a civil and sober national discussion on the essential question of abortion, the ontological one? When asked by pastor Rick Warren during the September debate with John McCain, "At what point does a baby get human rights?" Obama jokingly responded that answering that question "is above my pay grade." He later apologized for his flippancy, saying instead that "I do not presume to be able to answer these kinds of theological questions."
Actually, these questions are for most people not theological but philosophical; they arise not from religious belief but from natural intuitions about human identity. The conclusions of Roe v. Wade, themselves a philosophical attempt at an answer that has long been ignored in the shouting, should be brought up and examined by every citizen, regardless of pay grade.
"We know," Obama recognized at Notre Dame, "that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory." Now may be the time for us honestly to air our complexities and contradictions and seek not just the common ground but the common good.
It's the spirit of Notre Dame.