Bishop John D’Arcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend announced yesterday that he will not be attending graduation exercises at the University of Notre Dame this year. His statement was not one with which I could entirely agree, but its measured tone was a welcome change from the histrionics that have been launched against both Notre Dame and President Obama by some Catholic critics on the right.
Bishop D’Arcy made clear in his statement: "I wish no disrespect to our President, I pray for him and wish him well." The adverb "our" conveys the difference in tone between D’Arcy and others who have, in recent days, called the President everything from "extreme" to an "agent of death." Pastors, unlike pundits, can never close their hearts to the flock, even to those who stray, especially to those who stray. D’Arcy is a pastor.
That said, when D’Arcy writes that "President Obama has recently reaffirmed, and has now placed in public policy, his long-stated unwillingness to hold human life as sacred," he should have made clear that the President certainly did not see the issue that way. D’Arcy had written a thoughtful, strong statement after President Obama revoked the regulation banning the use of federal funds for embryonic stem cell research. Indeed, if this is the presidential decision that makes Obama so unacceptable on a Catholic stage, we should remember that Sen. John McCain was pledged to the same policy. So, what D’Arcy is saying is that in 2009-2012, no Catholic college or university should host the President of the United States. That is at least consistent and non-political. Those who fail to make such a distinction are merely carrying water for the Republicans.
The statement began with the information that the president of the university only informed the bishop about the invitation after it had been issued and accepted and moments before it was announced. You don’t need a degree in psychology to read that this circumstance peeved the bishop. Indeed, it is important to read this statement in the context of a long history of complicated relations between Bishop D’Arcy and the University of Notre Dame. Most recently, D’Arcy objected to the university’s decision to host performances of the "Vagina Monologues." When D’Arcy says he is absenting himself from the graduation because he must teach the faith by his actions, it is pretty clear he is trying to teach Notre Dame, more than President Obama.
I had almost written in my lede that Bishop D’Arcy was not attending the ceremonies BECAUSE President Obama would be there, but that is not exactly right. D’Arcy made clear the he encouraged Dr. Mary Ann Glendon to go to the ceremonies and receive her award, so sharing a dais with the President is evidently not going to put someone on a sure path to Hell. The Bishop noted that both he and Glendon were teachers, but in different ways, a somewhat opaque comment but one which nonetheless reinforces the sense that his disappointment is with Notre Dame.
Second-guessing bishops who make decisions about which we do not know many factors is a dangerous business. I wish that Bishop D’Arcy had reached a different conclusion, that he had used the occasion to reach out to President Obama to tell him why he thought his decision on stem cell research was so wrong. I wish he had pointed out that the President is not a Catholic and, just so, he does not agree with the Church on purgatory or the role of the Virgin Mary in the economy of salvation either, but that even profound differences do not – ever – obliterate our common humanity rooted in the common Fatherhood of God. Still, the bishop’s statement was moderate, polite, thoughtful. Two cheers for the Bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend.