Cardinal Francis George has now entered the fray regarding Notre Dame’s invitation to President Barack Obama to deliver the commencement address this year. A total of nine bishops have issued statements on the matter, which have sadly come precariously close to disrespecting the President and more than amply shown how out of touch the bishops are with the culture in which they live.
Cardinal George said, according to the Catholic News Service (oops - my bad! This was a headline in the CyberNews Service, which uses the CNS acronym as well. My apologies to the headline writers at Catholic News Service.) headline that "‘Notre Dame didn’t understand what it meant to be Catholic’ When They Invited Obama." Note the quotation marks. The Cardinal was making the point that when you are Catholic, what you do affects everyone else in the Church, and that the outcry over the invitation should have been anticipated by Notre Dame, that the sensus fidelium should have told them that inviting Obama would cause a scandal and that Catholics have an obligation not to cause scandal one to another.
Fair enough, but the loudness of a protest has nothing to do with its veracity or, in this instance, its coherence with the sensus fidelium. Most Catholics are, I suspect, proud that their President is coming to a Catholic university, that the visit is an honor.
Cardinal George might also have noted that the controversy may be boiling in the Catholic world, but it barely merits a mention in the mainstream culture. Smart, informed people I know look quizzically and say, "Oh, what’s that?" when I tell them I have been writing a lot about the Notre Dame controversy. Indeed, historians may sadly look back on this episode as the beginning of a re-ghettoization of the American Catholic Church.
Let’s be clear. That is what the critics want. They do not want to give a platform to anyone who disagrees with them. They say that abortion is the only issue that warrants such a hardened stance because it is an intrinsic evil, but the last time I checked, using artificial birth control is also considered an intrinsic evil. They do not want students at a university – of all places – exposed to ideas that are different from theirs. They are Catholic fundamentalists with a brittle and cramped notion of Catholic identity. Sadly, the bishops appear to be listening to them.
Let us also be clear that the pro-life movement has been unable to change the culture in the past thirty years on this issue. They have not only failed to change the laws, they have failed to find ways to lower the abortion rate. And, like their pro-choice counterparts, they are suspicious of efforts to reduce the abortion rate not because they will fail but because they fear they will work and deny both extremes their funding and their raison d’etre.
Cardinal George said that he intended no disrespect for the President. Cardinal DiNardo and Bishop D’Arcy also said they had great respect for the President. Yet, all three persist in calling him "pro-abortion." President Obama does not refer to himself that way and would argue the point that there is a distinction between being pro-abortion and being pro-choice. That may be a distinction without a difference, but it requires an argument, not an assertion. More disturbing is the failure on the part of these moral and religious leaders to recognize what respect entails. If anything, it means referring to someone as they refer to themselves. I do not think a bishop would call Mr. Obama a "negro" and if they did it would be considered rude, even though that is precisely how Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle would have referred to Obama at his birth in the early 1960s. Why? Because black Americans do not refer to themselves that way anymore. The bishops need to stop referring to Obama as "pro-abortion." It is disrespectful.
I confess, however, that I fear the American hierarchy is unaware how irrelevant they are becoming to the culture they wish to change. An ABC poll released yesterday showed Obama’s approval rating at 66 percent. The Church can never compromise an essential tenet of its faith, of course, no matter what the polls say. But, the idea that Notre Dame’s decision to invite the President of the United States is a "moral outrage" only shows that our bishops are once again out-of-touch with their flock and ineffectual at persuading their culture. It is very sad.