Notre Dame’s decision to confer an honorary degree on President Obama has engendered resistance from a counter-reformation blessed by prominent members of the Catholic hierarchy. The fight against Obama is being advanced by a band of neo-Catholics who adhere to the radical notion that sectarian doctrine must be written into public policy. The former Archbishop of St. Louis, Raymond Burke, whose excoriation of John Kerry in 2004 was rewarded with a high Vatican post, has denounced the invitation to Obama as a “scandal.” Less prominently, but no less vociferously, the local bishop of South Bend, Ind., proclaimed that for the first time in 25 years he would not attend the university’s commencement—a boycott few would have noticed had he not announced it.
The bishops and their acolytes succeeded in battering pro-choice John Kerry in 2004, when a majority of Catholics joined the Rovian Republican base that narrowly delivered a second term to George W. Bush. Kerry, a faithful church attendee, declined to retract his support of the constitutional guarantee of a woman’s right to choose. His position was consistent with the view, articulated more than twenty years ago, by two of the nation’s most prominent Catholic political leaders—Edward Kennedy and Mario Cuomo. They had argued—at Notre Dame and elsewhere—that in a free and pluralistic society, political leaders cannot impose their religious beliefs on a majority of citizens who disagree. This is a view that has the additional benefit of conforming to political reality. After all, the church can’t even write its doctrine into the statutes of the two most Catholic states in the union, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, both of which are heavily pro-choice.
Some of the church’s politicking—including its opposition to stem-cell research, which hardliners absurdly condemn as murder in a Petri dish—wasn’t problematic for Kerry. But same-sex marriage, a new social issue in 2004, was. Kerry tried to finesse the issue by championing civil unions, but he privately fretted that his position amounted to hairsplitting. Explain to me again, he once said in frustration, the difference between what I’m for and marriage.
The conservative Catholic assault on Kerry was hypocritical. Not a word was uttered about Catholic Republicans who disdain the Church’s teachings on social justice or who vigorously supported the massive taking of life in the Iraq war, which the Pope had opposed from the outset. Instead, hardliners embraced Bush and the GOP, and aligned themselves with the religious right, which once had scorned—and in some cases still does—the Church of Rome as “the anti-Christ.”
The neo-Caths reject John Kennedy’s classic formulation on church and state. “I believe in an America,” he said in 1960, “where no Catholic prelate would tell the president—should he be Catholic—how to act.” Kennedy pledged to follow the public interest “without regard to outside religious pressures.” The speech, which was drafted with the counsel of the great Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray, was a political Magna Carta for American Catholics, freeing them to participate in American politics to the fullest.
The neo-Caths at least claimed a rationale in 2004. Because Kerry was a Catholic, they contended he could be disciplined publicly by church authorities. But as the Notre Dame commencement nears, they have widened their crusade to attack Barack Obama, who doesn’t fit Kennedy’s description of a President who “happens also to be a Catholic.”
In the neo-Caths’ view, if Obama disagrees with Catholic doctrine, he must be condemned and silenced—even if he’s not a member of the church. This assertion of an almost limitless role for the church in public life comes perilously close to reviving a 19th-century pope’s position that “Americanism,” which values individualism and separation of church and state, is heresy.
Similarly, the neo-Caths would reduce the Catholic university to a caricature—a center of dictat, not dialogue, and a place for closed minds, not open debate and discovery. Obama opponent Mary Ann Glendon has declined to appear at the graduation, invoking the hierarchy’s warning that people like Obama “should not be given awards, honors, or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.”
But the American people have already given Obama the world’s biggest platform, which he earned with the support of 54 percent of Catholic voters. The Notre Dame student body supported him at an even higher level—with 57 percent of the vote. Obama will now honor them by speaking at their graduation. He will handle any disruption with his characteristic strength and decency, and I am certain he will be conciliatory without yielding his own convictions.
As someone who was raised a Catholic and is the product of 16 years of Catholic education, including Georgetown University, I am appalled to witness the rise of a neo-Catholicism at odds with American democracy and diversity. In particular, the Catholic hierarchy’s moral condemnation of gay Americans who seek the right of marriage comes with ill grace from the same people who for decades abetted and covered up for morally heinous predator priests.
All of us, Catholic or not, have the right as citizens of a free society to insist that the ideal of Americanism—of a democracy of differences, pluralism, and mutual respect—is not a heresy, but the way to live together and worship each in our own way.
I think Obama will be largely welcomed at Notre Dame. And I suspect that he will be reelected in 2012 with strong Catholic support. As Catholics themselves reject the hierarchy’s partisan directives, this Church—and any other—would be wise to avoid attempting to impose a version of sharia politics in the U.S. We have already seen the electoral consequences of that position, with conservatives rendered increasingly irrelevant. The predictable result for the church would be row upon row of bare pews—the better to hear the anathemas drop in the theocratic echo chamber.