The university’s decision to honour Obama has exposed a deep rift in the US Church, says Freddy Gray
On May 17, barring a dramatic late cancellation, Barack Obama will climb on to a podium at Notre Dame University in Indiana to give the prestigious annual commencement address. The President will also be handed an honorary doctorate of law. According to custom, he is expected to wear the Notre Dame’s scholar’s robe, on which an image of the cross is threaded, along with the words of a prayer to the Virgin Mary.
Many Catholics are aghast at this prospect. Four weeks of intensive protests against the “Notre Dame travesty” seem to have failed. More than 350,000 online signatures have been collected on petitions; public demonstrations have been held; furious Catholics have taken to the airwaves to complain; and hundreds of angry editorials have been written.
It’s not just Catholics making a fuss. Pastor Steve Krotoski, head of the evangelical group Pray Daily America, recently posted a video calling for the resignation of Notre Dame’s president, Fr John Jenkins. “Everyone’s sins can be forgiven by Jesus’s blood,” he said. “However, Jenkins is no longer qualified for Notre Dame.” Another pro-life group has set up a website, www.replace jenkins.com, and claims to have received pledges from 900 Notre Dame alumni and donors promising to withhold a total of $8.2m (£5.5m) in future donations to the university if the invitation to the President is not rescinded.
Despite the uproar, Notre Dame’s authorities have stood by their decision. And the White House has given no indication that the President’s visit to Notre Dame is not going ahead. The “abortion president”, as Obama’s pro-life critics call him, is still going to be honoured at America’s best-known Catholic institution.
So has the outrage been a waste of time? Clearly, the outraged don’t think so. “There’s been a tremendous outpouring of support for the students who are opposing this,” said Patrick O’Reilly, president and founder of the Cardinal Newman Society, which helped set up the “stop the scandal at Our Lady’s university” appeal on the internet.
“Some of them have said they’ll have nothing to do with Notre Dame if this goes forward.” Last week, moreover, the protesters struck a significant public relations blow against the university as it emerged that Mary Ann Glendon, the former US ambassador to the Holy See, who was supposed to receive Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal and give a speech alongside Obama, had refused her award.
In an open letter to the university, Glendon told faculty chiefs that she could not accept the honour and would not attend the event. She argued that in choosing Obama – “a prominent and uncompromising opponent of the Church’s position on issues involving fundamental principles of justice” – the university had breached the “express request” of the US bishops, conference in 2004 that Catholic organisations should avoid rewarding those who act in defiance of core Catholic values.
Glendon’s refusal has embarrassed Notre Dame’s authorities, who had previously made capital out of her presence.
“We think having the President come to Notre Dame, see our graduates, meet our leaders, and hear a talk from Mary Ann Glendon is a good thing for the President and for the causes we care about,” said the university in a statement. Glendon, however, excoriated the implication that her speech would “somehow balance” the event. Gleeful Catholic voices quickly added their scorn. “Fr John Jenkins likely thought himself very clever,” wrote Fr Raymond de Souza for the National Catholic Register. “Professor Mary Ann Glendon just took him to school.” For many of the protestors, however, the controversy is about more than simply shaming Notre Dame’s leadership; it represents an opportunity to attack President Obama and further damage his reputation among Catholic voters. As Deal Hudson, president of InsideCatholic.com and a former religious adviser to the Bush administration put it: “When you are trying to get the Catholic vote, the first thing on the table is getting a speaking engagement at Notre Dame. I know. I’ve been there. The Obama political team did this and I’m sure [they] expected some kind of backlash, but nothing like the watershed moment that this has turned into.” Hudson may have a point. A recent Pew poll suggested that Obama’s popularity among “white non-Hispanic Catholics” has waned significantly. Whereas in February only 20 per cent of this group said that they disapproved of the new President’s “job performance” in March this figure rose to 40 per cent. That shift has been seen in Catholic circles as the faithful’s response to Obama’s recent reforms in favour of abortion and embryonic stemcell research – including, most notoriously, the lifting of a ban on federal funding for overseas abortion providers. It seems that the high-profile Notre Dame row has intensified Obama’s “Catholic problem” and stirred up the faithful against their President.
Or maybe not. As John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Centre for Religion and the Press, pointed out, the dip in enthusiasm for Obama among Catholics is “not too far out of step with his decline overall”. The President’s positive ratings among all Catholics – regardless of race – have remained high: in the same poll, 59 per cent said they approved of Obama’s performance. Even more worryingly for pro-lifers, in March another Pew study found that a majority of selfdescribed Catholics supported the government’s repeal of federal restrictions on experiments with embryos.
The concern for Obama’s opponents, and for the prolife movement at large, is that most Americans, including many who consider themselves Catholic, find the furore about Notre Dame to be ludicrously overblown and politically motivated.
Even some of the leading voices opposing Notre Dame’s decision to invite Obama are opposed to the loonier fringe within their camp. Anti-abortion activist Randall Terry, whose group has been sending out pictures of aborted foetuses to Notre Dame alumni, has caused particular concern.
“I agree with the protests,” said George Neumayr, editor of the Catholic World Report, “but I see [Randall Terry’s] species of it as opportunistic, attentiongrabbing jackassery.” Jeff Tisak, an American football player for the university’s team, The Fighting Irish, and cochairman of a student coalition opposed to giving Obama an honorary degree, added: “We are motivated by love of our university and have no desire to turn commencement, or the weeks leading up to it, into a ‘circus’ of any kind.” In the same spirit Bishop John D’Arcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend, who is boycotting the commencement ceremony because of his opposition to Obama, has urged “all Catholics and others of good will to stay away from unseemly and unhelpful demonstrations against our nation’s president or Notre Dame”.
The trouble, though, is that such reasonable voices are lost in the angry clamour. The more extreme elements of the pro-life cause, spurred on by their political animus against a Democratic president and the media’s interest in their fury, have dominated the news.
In contrast, President Obama comes across as a model of unflappability. At a press conference last week to mark his first 100 days in office, he was asked whether in light of the Notre Dame controversy, he would press ahead with plans to pass the radically pro-abortion Freedom of Choice Act.
“The Freedom of Choice Act is not highest legislative priority,” he replied: “I believe that women should have the right to choose. But I think that the most important thing we can do to tamp down some of the anger surrounding this issue is to focus on those areas that we can agree on. And that’s where I’m going to focus.” That answer must be unsatisfactory to the millions of faithful Catholics who believe abortion is intrinsically wrong. Yet in the eye of the majority Obama sounds fair-minded and tolerant, whereas Catholics who appear to abhor the very thought of his presence at a Catholic university seem irrational, even demented. Such perceptions cannot help the pro-life movement. The wilder supporters of the unborn should realise that, far from posing a threat to the new President’s popularity, they risk marginalising not just themselves but all opponents of abortion. Perhaps Catholics have an Obama problem.
The article in this slot last week was incorrectly attributed to John Newton. It was written by Fr Jerome Bertram Cong. Orat. We apologise for the error