Watch CBS News

God and Obama at Notre Dame

This column was written by Joseph Bottum.

All across campus, the flowers have begun to bloom, their dull Indiana roots stirred by the spring rain, and the grass is almost green again at Notre Dame. Beneath a 16-foot statue of the Blessed Virgin, the main administration building sits, as always, its gold dome sparkling in the warm spring sun.

Meanwhile, in the offices of the college chapel--some chapel: the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, with a 230-foot spire and the world's largest collection of 19th-century French stained glass--young couples are meeting with deacons to plan the alumni weddings that run nonstop through the spring and summer. The Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes flickers with candles, lit by anxious students as they prepare for final exams. The 14-story mosaic of Jesus, arms in the air, signals a perpetual touchdown on the side of the Hesburgh Library. The girls wear shorts, the boys wear jeans, and the gossip is all about next year's football team.

Oh, and a small plane crisscrosses the sky above campus, dragging an enormous picture of a bloody fetus. The wild-eyed and news-hungry pro-life activist Randall Terry is being hauled away by the police for trespassing. Graduate students from the theology department, their faces twisted red in fury, are screaming "Torturer!" at former Bush-speechwriter William McGurn as he tries to give a campus lecture on abortion. The local bishop has declared he will boycott the graduation ceremonies, the Secret Service has announced its fears of violence, and the university's president has retreated in a snit to his office--venturing out only to make snide remarks about his fellow Catholics before he closets himself again. The official Notre Dame website has dealt with the circus by featuring a desperately uncontroversial photograph of the school's annual Eucharistic Procession, a kind of pathetic little lie that, really, there's nothing much happening here in South Bend, Indiana: No, sir, no need to worry. No need to worry, at all.

Welcome to 2009 at the most famously Catholic school in America. Welcome to Catholic education in the 21st century.

What's causing all the noise at Notre Dame is the announcement that President Barack Obama will be receiving an honorary law degree at commencement on May 17. There's not much use in pretending that Obama doesn't support legalized abortion. This is the man, after all, who voted against the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act when it was in the Illinois state legislature--the man who, by rescinding the Mexico City policy three days after he took office, now has American tax dollars paying for abortions in foreign countries, and the man who used a televised campaign appearance at an evangelical church to dismiss the moral question of abortion as "above my pay grade." Who was he kidding? He told the world flat out where he stands when he said he wouldn't want any daughter of his who made a mistake to be "punished" with a child.

For that matter, there's not much use in pretending that Catholic legal analysis isn't opposed to abortion. Do all the casuistry you want. Bring in the sharpest canon lawyers from Marquette, and the cleverest Catholic ward-heelers from Chicago, and the slipperiest Jesuits from Georgetown. Sit them all down and show them again the tape of Mario Cuomo's 1984 speech about abortion at Notre Dame--you remember, the famous "personally opposed, but publicly supportive" speech that has provided Catholic politicians with talking points for 25 years--and let them spin the president's May 17 visit to campus as hard as they can. Still, there's something peculiar about the honoring of Barack Obama with a Catholic law degree. Couldn't they have made it a degree in sociology or something?

Ah, well, an honorary doctorate of law it is, and now the Catholic faithful are up in arms across the nation. A couple thousand of them are camped out in South Bend, parading past the campus gates with rosaries and placards. A tiny Catholic group called the Cardinal Newman Society jumped on the story and in just over a month collected more than 350,000 signatures for a petition denouncing Notre Dame. Another website announced that it had received, in a single week, pledges to withhold from the school $8.2 million in planned donations.

Of course, the protesters are not the only ones angry. Obama has plenty of Catholic supporters: He won 54 percent of the Catholic vote in the last election, after all, and at least 45 percent of the vote of Mass-going Catholics. A once fairly respectable Catholic law professor named Douglas Kmiec had committed nearly every sin short of mopery to make Mitt Romney the 2008 Republican nominee, but when that campaign stumbled and fell, he took to Slate magazine to declare, "Beyond life issues, an audaciously hope-filled Democrat like Obama is a Catholic natural."

And maybe even without going beyond the life issues: Two months before Election Day, Kmiec published Can a Catholic Support Him? Asking the Big Questions about Barack Obama--a book in which he insisted that Obama, in the secret places of his heart, is actually against abortion, and, anyway, unlike the evil John McCain, he wants to help the poor, and when the poor aren't poor anymore, they'll stop having abortions, so the pro-choice Obama is more objectively pro-life than any pro-life Republican could possibly be.

Unsurprisingly, Douglas Kmiec is not happy with the protesters at Notre Dame: "Jesus' method was one of inclusion, teaching with generosity, forgiveness, and truth--not snubbing those in high office," he recently observed, forgetting, perhaps, Jesus' encounter with that high-officeholder Pontius Pilate. And Obama's other Catholic admirers are equally irate. The left-leaning Jesuit magazine America, for instance, harrumphed its support of "Catholic intellectuals who defend the richer, subtly nuanced, broad-tent Catholic tradition."

Something in that adjectival pile-up--ah, the rich, subtle nuance!--makes it sound more like wine tasting than ecclesiology, but America was soon joined by the other old-line American Catholic magazine, Commonweal, which could not bring itself to express the least sympathy for the protesters. On the First Things website, a young woman named Lacy Dodd published an account of her pregnancy during her senior year and the pressure her boyfriend applied to talk her into an abortion. "Who draws support from your decision to honor President Obama," she reasonably asked her alma mater, "the young, pregnant Notre Dame woman sitting in that graduating class who wants desperately to keep her baby, or the Notre Dame man who believes that the Catholic teaching on the intrinsic evil of abortion is just dining-room talk?" Commonweal put a notice of the article on its own website, and 83 comments later, the young woman had been called everything but a slut. Her story was "flimsy," "manipulative," "hardly fair," a "negative stereotype," "polemical"--and she was just "a horny kid," one of the "victims of the Russian roulette moral theory of premarital sex" so rampant in the protesters' troglodyte version of Catholicism.

Even some conservatives, Obama's natural opponents, took the school's side and denounced Mary Ann Glendon for refusing this year's Laetare Medal, Notre Dame's annual honor for service to the Church and society. A Harvard law professor, author of the widely cited Rights Talk, and the former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, Glendon is well known for her basic niceness and her well-mannered willingness to join attempts at coalition building between left and right.

Her decision was no personal caprice. Back in 2004, the American bishops reached a compromise between their own left and right contingents and issued a carefully worded document called "Catholics in Political Life." "Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles," the bishops agreed [emphasis in the original]. "[Such people] should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions." In part, this explains why, at the present moment, not a single American bishop is supporting Notre Dame in its clash with the bishop of South Bend, John D'Arcy--and bishops from 68 of the 195 American dioceses have publicly chastised the school. What was the point of all that careful work by the bishops if Catholic institutions are simply going to ignore it?

Anyway, Glendon had first accepted the invitation to receive the medal back in December. In March came the announcement of Obama's honorary degree, and then the school's lashing out at critics, and then the leaking of Notre Dame's official talking points, which instructed the university's spokesmen to reply to complaints: "President Obama won't be doing all the talking. Mary Ann Glendon, the former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, will be speaking as the recipient of the Laetare Medal." Glendon decided she didn't much like being a makeweight, so she wrote on April 27 to decline the medal, saying that Notre Dame's refusal even to speak with its local bishop threatened a "ripple effect" that could lead "other Catholic schools . . . to disregard the bishops' guidelines." The university's president, Fr. John Jenkins, had ratcheted the situation up, and up, and up, until even the gracious Mary Ann Glendon was forced to choose between the bishops and Notre Dame. What made them imagine she could possibly choose Notre Dame?

That wasn't how some saw it, of course. The comments about Glendon left, for example, on the libertarian law professors' blog The Volokh Conspiracy are well worth reading: a hilariously incoherent recital of a hundred years' worth of anti-Catholic tropes--mashed together with the thin-skinned reaction of Obama's supporters to any criticism of their leader and spiced with a conservative complaint that Glendon is childishly picking up her ball and going home, retreating into irrelevance instead of fighting the good fight.

What all these critics of Glendon share is a sense that Catholic unhappiness with Notre Dame must be about politics. "There is a political game going on here, and part of that is that you demonize the people who disagree with you, you question their integrity, you challenge their character, and you brand these people as moral poison," Fr. Kenneth Himes, chairman of the theology department at Boston College, complained to the Boston Globe. As James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal noted, this was the same Fr. Himes who in 2006 wrote the faculty a letter objecting to an honorary degree for Condoleezza Rice--a letter that read, "On the levels of both moral principle and practical moral judgment, Secretary Rice's approach to international affairs is in fundamental conflict with Boston College's commitment to the values of the Catholic and Jesuit traditions and is inconsistent with the humanistic values that inspire the university's work."

You could cut the irony with a knife: It's only demonizing when conservatives do it. Still Fr. Himes joins Douglas Kmiec, and America, and Commonweal, and the administration of Notre Dame, and most of the newspaper columnists who've weighed in on the controversy, and a surprising number of conservatives. They all look at the Notre Dame protests and think it must be about politics. Bad politics or good politics, take your pick. But politics all the way down.

As it happens, they're wrong. Politics has very little to do with the mess. This isn't a fight about who won the last presidential election and how he's going to deal with abortion. It's a fight about culture--the culture of American Catholicism, and how Notre Dame, still living in a 1970s Catholic world, has suddenly awakened to find itself out of date.

The role of culture is what Fr. Jenkins at Notre Dame and many other presidents of Catholic colleges don't quite get, and their lack of culture is what makes them sometimes seem so un-Catholic--though the charge befuddles them whenever it is made. As perhaps it ought. They know very well that they are Catholics: They go to Mass, and they pray, and their faith is real, and their theology is sophisticated, and what right has a bunch of other Catholics to run around accusing them of failing to be Catholic?
But, in fact, they live in a different world from most American Catholics. Opposition to abortion doesn't stand at the center of Catholic theology. It doesn't even stand at the center of Catholic faith. It does stand, however, at the center of Catholic culture in this country. Opposition to abortion is the signpost at the intersection of Catholicism and American public life.

And those who--by inclination or politics--fail to grasp this fact will all eventually find themselves in the situation that Fr. Jenkins has now created for himself. Culturally out of touch, they rail that the antagonism must derive from politics. But it doesn't. It derives from the sense of the faithful that abortion is important. It derives from the feeling of many ordinary Catholics that the Church ought to stand for something in public life--and that something is opposition to abortion.

Fr. Himes went on to tell the Boston Globe, "Some people have simply reduced Catholicism to the abortion issue, and, consequently, they have simply launched a crusade to bar anything from Catholic institutions that smacks of any sort of open conversation." Of course, here, too, there's a level of irony: Out at Notre Dame, the president, Fr. Jenkins, has defended his choice of Obama on the grounds of "conversation," but, now in full-lock down mode, the school hasn't actually scheduled any conversations or debates on the topic. They did invite the 82-year-old Judge John T. Noonan to take Mary Ann Glendon's place on the platform, and he is not, by any means, an unfaithful Catholic or a supporter of abortion. He has the reputation, however, of being one of the dullest speakers in captivity, and the school can't really expect him to provide much "conversation partnership," as Notre Dame calls it, for Barack Obama and his quicksilver rhetoric.

Still, in a peculiar way, Himes is right that "some people have simply reduced Catholicism to the abortion issue." It is a horrifying fact, in many ways, that Roe v. Wade has done more to provide Catholic identity than any other event of the last 50 years. Still, for American Catholics, the Church is a refuge and bulwark against an ambient culture that erodes morality and undermines families. Catholic culture is their counterculture, their means of upholding the dignity of the human person and the integrity of family--and, in that context, the centrality of abortion for American Catholic culture seems much less arbitrary than it first appeared.

This is what the leaders of Notre Dame need to grasp. They do not necessarily have bad theology when they equate the life issues with other concerns. They do not necessarily have bad faith just because they say that war and capital punishment outweigh the million babies killed every year in this country by abortion. But they lack the cultural marker that would make them Catholic in the minds of other Catholics. Abortion is not the only life issue, but it is the one that bears most directly on the lives of ordinary Catholics as they swim against the current to preserve family life. And until Catholic universities understand this, they will not be Catholic--in a very real, existential sense.

Out in Indiana, the flowers are still blooming, the dome is still sparkling, and the protests are still going. Randall Terry promised, "We will make this a circus," and he has certainly tried. Alan Keyes has announced his own Notre Dame protest, complete with his plans to be arrested. "There are unintended consequences to this kind of angry, vituperative language about their opponents," a liberal Catholic named Patrick Whelan grandly told the San Jose Mercury News. "By making themselves pawns of the conservative right, the bishops are playing into a cycle of decline for our Church." And on the South Bend circus goes.

Any Catholic with an ounce of awareness knew this fight was coming. The ordinary Catholic Church and the Catholic colleges were bound to clash, and it's a little unfortunate that it actually spilled into public view with a visit of the president of the United States to the campus of Notre Dame. A better place to make all this public might have been the Sacred Heart University dinner this spring, which honored the pro-abortion activist Kerry Kennedy. Or the Xavier University commencement, which is honoring the pro-abortion political strategist Donna Brazile. Or the University of San Francisco graduation, which is honoring the pro-abortion district attorney (and prominent Proposition 8 opponent) Kamala Harris.

For that matter, the fight should have been held in April, when Georgetown University accommodated President Obama's handlers by covering up the IHS, the monogram for Jesus, on the wall behind the rostrum when Obama spoke on campus. You'd think this really would mark the end for Georgetown. The school typically shrugs off criticism of its lack of Catholicism by proudly declaring its "Jesuit Tradition," but the IHS monogram was the symbol for the Jesuits that St. Ignatius Loyola himself chose when he founded the society in the 16th century.

There are reasons, however, that the struggle over Catholic culture broke into open battle over a visit of Barack Obama to Notre Dame. In part, it's simply because Obama is the president and a whole lot more prominent than Kerry Kennedy or Donna Brazile or Kamala Harris. But in greater part, it's because Notre Dame is, well, Notre Dame: home of the gold dome, the basilica, the grotto, and Touchdown Jesus. If Georgetown doesn't appear Catholic to ordinary Catholics, that's just Georgetown.

But if Notre Dame is shaky--if the most identifiably Catholic place in America doesn't seem Catholic--then the old connection between Catholic culture and Catholic institutions and the Catholic Church really is broken beyond repair. And where will Catholics send their children to school then?

Joseph Bottum is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD and the editor of First Things.

By Joseph Bottum
Reprinted with permission from The Weekly Standard

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.