The National Catholic Review

I love listening to the President address issues like health care reform or fixing the economy. He is lucid in ways few of our presidents have been and virtually no other contemporary politician is. He seems to accurately assess not only the issues involved but the values that underlay the issues. President Obama epitomizes reasonableness and decency, and his speeches breathe with liberal values mixed with common sense. When I turn on the television and see him walking to a lectern, I do not anticipate, as I did these past eight years, the potential for a verbal train wreck.

A few years ago, I was having lunch with a bishop. His state had just elected a new governor who, like the President, attended Ivy League schools both for undergrad and graduate schools. The bishop and the governor had just had their first meeting. "He’s not very smart," the bishop said. Of course, the governor was very smart, a man, like the President trained in the law and successful at the varied, complicated tasks, all of which demand effectiveness, involved in seeking high office. But, he was not smart the way the bishop wanted him to be smart. He understood the ins-and-outs of the law but could not give a philosophic defense of the place of the law in a civilized society, or wrestle with a difficult question like – what to do when the law is unjust? He knew policy but he did not know philosophic anthropology. He advocated an array of policies to help the people of his state but he could not discourse clearly on what it means to be a human being, what rights inhere in the human person, what demands upon the state result from an adequate appraisal of human dignity.

President Obama had a sit-down yesterday with religious editors, including our own Father Drew, in anticipation of his meeting with Pope Benedict XVI next week. There was no verbal train wreck, according to the participants. But, when he discusses anything that touches on theology, he sounds very much like the liberal Protestant he is. He is, of course, entitled to his beliefs, but he should be more judicious in how he applies his own principles to his speaking about the Catholic Church. For example, after citing the influence of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin on his own career and thinking, the President said, "And so I know the potential that the bishops have to speak out forcefully on issues of social justice. ...There are going to continue to be areas where we have profound agreements and there are going to be some areas where we disagree. That’s healthy." I am not sure that all disagreements are healthy. Certainly, democracy without debate is unhealthy. But, I do not think it is "healthy" that the President disagrees with the Church on abortion. I think he – and all Americans who support abortion – are wrong and that what would be "healthy" is for them to recognize that they are wrong. Most politicians, and all successful ones, want their interlocutor to see that they are in agreement or close to it. But, here, the President skates very close to the kind of relativism that is Pope Benedict’s biggest worry. Nor is abortion an issue where we can simply "agree to disagree." I do not see that the President grasps how or why the issue is foundational to our social justice tradition he is so quick to applaud.

The President promised a "robust" conscience clause and I do think that he has generally gotten a bum rap on the issue. In its closing days, the Bush administration enacted a rule that was designed to throw sand in the face of the incoming administration. If the rule was as important as Obama’s critics insist it is, why did it take Bush seven years, eleven months and twenty-some days to approve it? That said, President Obama betrayed a bit of myopia about his own administration when discussing the conscience clause: "I think there have been some who keep on anticipating the worst from us, and it’s not based on anything I’ve said or done, but is rather just a perception somehow that we have some hard-line agenda that we’re seeking to push," the President told the reporters. The thing he has done is appoint people with a history of pushing a hard-line pro-abortion agenda to positions of authority within his administration: His Faith-Based Office reports to Domestic Policy Director Melody Barnes who was formerly a board member at EMILY’s list, one of the nation’s most forceful pro-abortion advocacy groups. So, the concerns about his agenda did not just materialize out of thin air, even if they are exploited by Republicans for partisan advantage. We are watching to see precisely how issues like the conscience clause play out. We are waiting to see whether the President will support the Pregnant Women Support Act. I don't think most people would count me among the President’s usual critics, but that does not mean I always sleep well when I think of such issues and how they might play out. And, I hope that his conservative critics will give President Obama credit for taking the issue seriously. He has been keen to carve out room for pro-life Democrats, more so than most of his fellow Democrats and he deserves credit for that too.

The President’s comments yesterday were better than his speech at Notre Dame. And, meeting with religion editors before going to the Vatican was a good idea. Certainly better than scheduling a meeting for Cardinal McCarrick at the White House at 3 p.m. on Good Friday, an event that has become shorthand in the religious community for the occasional clumsiness of Obama’s White House staff when it comes to Catholic sensibilities. I give the President’s performance yesterday a B. Let’s hope the visit next week is an A. But, stay away from the theology Mr. President. It is, as you once said, above your pay grade.

 

Comments

Anonymous | 7/12/2009 - 1:48am
"If Obama were to state his being "pro-abortion" that would certainly be
unhealthy and I would agree that it would be wrong.  But he is in fact
for "choice" and choice always implies that someone is free to make a
right or wrong, good or evil decision, and as our Church has always
taught us the supremacy of free will, is his positon really to be
regarded as intrinsically evil? "

But to say you don't directly support the assault and murder of an unborn child, but the "right to choose" to assault and murder an unborn child is the same thing.
By stepping back and allowing it to happen without intervening for the victim(the child) you are being pro-abortion.  You are both allowing this assault with no just cause to continue and also, by your actions, attacking the humanity of the unborn child as being less human merely because that human is younger and resides in a particular place, the womb(geography), both of which are forms of descrimination prohibited by current law(age descrimination and descrimination based on where one lives).  Example, the courts have ruled that even illegal aliens that have deliberately broken our laws and evaded deportation, while not citizens, have certain basic rights as human persons, even though they are not citizens.  So the fact that a human in the womb is human, worthy of basic human rights, is something to be recognized even though they are not legal "persons". 
If someone said, "I don't support the action of a man forcing himself sexually on a woman because she isn't strong enough to resist him, but it is not my place to force my personal morality on this man that such an action is wrong by my own moral beliefs." 
Of course some will say "but sexual assault is illegal", but the question then is "why should it be?"  Since the philosophy behind "pro choice" is that women are humanly superior to a fetus because a woman is bigger, stronger and older and can do things a fetus cannot do and is therefore humanly superior to the inferior fetus.  If a woman is weaker than a man and cannot defend herself against an assault, then the stronger man has a right to dominate her.  It is a "might makes right" argument that "pro-choicers" use.
However it is this very idea that goes against catholic teaching at it's base, that all humans regardless of how old they are, where they live, or what they are capable of doing(such as breathing without outside assistance), have basic value as human beings and cannot be killed merely because someone finds their existence inconvenient or troublesome to future life goals or plans(the maint reason for most abortions performed in this country) or because someone else claims a right to kill someone merely because they believe their victim to be humanly inferior because a fetus can't defend him/herself, which is what pro-choicers espouse.
Such a philosophy and point of view is indeed "pro-abortion" and goes even further in engaging in public relations to defend the action of abortion itself from criticism(such as denying, in the face of scientific and medical fact) that another human life begins at conception, which is, to quote Al Gore, "a settled issue of science fact", not something open to opinion or conscience.
Such action, to defend the very idea of assaulting a young human who has done nothing to you, as being a legitimate "choice" and not an intrinsic evil, is indeed an evil act and is "pro-abortion", not just the ability to make a choice.
Anonymous | 7/7/2009 - 9:55am
Thanks very much for the insightful and honest piece. 
Anonymous | 7/3/2009 - 5:24pm
This was a good piece, but one passing remark about President Obama (and his presumed supporters) and his stance as "pro-abortion".  It is unfortunate that a writer from America should use this phrase, which is deliberately misleading and in poor taste.  If Obama were to state his being "pro-abortion" that would certainly be unhealthy and I would agree that it would be wrong.  But he is in fact for "choice" and choice always implies that someone is free to make a right or wrong, good or evil decision, and as our Church has always taught us the supremacy of free will, is his positon really to be regarded as intrinsically evil?  I am no moral theologian and may be wrong, but at the very least, please do your readers the service of not manipulating them with loaded terms that only serve to further polarize debate on this issue
Anonymous | 7/3/2009 - 4:48pm
Though we are not privy to the entire exchange it seems fair to say that President Obama did not do justice to Cardinal Bernardin's "seamless garment." Neither in Mr. Winters's or Fr. Christiansen's blog does the president give the full  meaning of human life that the Cardinal stated, to include the unborn. This is not a mere oversight. This is a calculated omission for political purpose by an intelligent person, a skilled rhetorician. Not worthy of a B, not even a gentlemanly C. On logic give him an F, on politics an incomplete. America Magazine and its commentators need to hold him to a higher standard. Cheering him on, as some do, does not advance the cause of holding him accountable. Neither the presidency nor our democracy benefit from such adulation.
Anonymous | 7/3/2009 - 10:37am
"He understood the ins-and-outs of the law but could not give a philosophic defense of the place of the law in a civilized society, or wrestle with a difficult question like – what to do when the law is unjust? He knew policy but he did not know philosophic anthropology. He advocated an array of policies to help the people of his state but he could not discourse clearly on what it means to be a human being, what rights inhere in the human person, what demands upon the state result from an adequate appraisal of human dignity." This precisely what is wrong with our political leaders and the formation they receive from our educational system. You do not have to be a Catholic to accept this.  Just read Plato's Republic.  Or Aristotle.  Principled atheists understand this better than most Christians which shows the very sad, fallen state of Christian thought in the Western world. As much as I respect Barack Obama, despite being a Harvard law school graduate, and a former adjunct professor of Constitutional Law, he appears to have no more than a mere technical understanding of the law with no appreciation of the underlying principles that the law is based on.  
Anonymous | 7/3/2009 - 10:19am
I guess anyone, reading from a script, will not have many "train wrecks"!