Sea Change in South Bend

In the first few months of Barack Obama’s presidency, he has managed to fracture and marginalize the extreme right of the Republican Party. He might well be on his way to doing the same with the far right within the Catholic Church.

This Sunday, when President Obama receives an honorary degree from the University of Notre Dame, he will have an opportunity to bridge the long political divide between Catholic pro-life voters and the Democratic Party. He does not need to come out against the criminalization of abortion on Sunday, but if he can show respect for the church’s position and commit to the reduction of abortions, he can help mend one of the great schisms in American politics.

A small and shrinking corner of the church has a lot to lose if his overture is successful. The uproar over President Obama’s address at Notre Dame is more about conservative Catholic leaders’ resentment over their own diminishing power than actually promoting the Catholic Church’s protection of human life. Up until recently, conservative Catholics, particularly members of the neocon laity, have had free rein to challenge the faithfulness of Catholics who voted for Democratic politicians.

There are now cracks in that wall of intimidation. Moderate Catholic voters swung away from the Republican Party, which in part fueled Obama’s victory (even the Vatican’s own newspaper gave President Obama a positive early review). I think it is reasonable to assume that Catholic pro-life voters made a judgment that the president has little effect on abortion policy and that there were much more important issues on the table. They also might have acutely deduced that even if Roe v. Wade were to be overturned by a change in the Supreme Court, it would still be up to states to make their own laws regarding abortion.

On a recent visit home, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that my former pastor and principal, both members of the clergy, signed a petition in support of Notre Dame inviting President Obama. Both are moderate and pragmatic members of the clergy who have voted for Republicans and Democrats in the past. I believe it’s indicative that most Catholics don’t want an insular and partisan church.

Catholic universities, in particular, cannot withdraw from the world in which they live. To do so requires violating the very spirit and purpose of a university and can lead to absurd ends. During the 2004 presidential election, the Catholic University of America almost went into lockdown, preventing even actor Andy Garcia, who happened to be pro-choice, from speaking on campus to the theater department.

Luckily, Notre Dame has chosen a different path and for that, “Cheer, cheer for Old Notre Dame/
Wake up the echoes cheering her name.”


The views expressed in this blog do not represent the views or opinions of Generations United.