Monday, April 27, 2009

It's Still Out There

Today’s developments in the Notre Dame “controversy” suggest
that the “distrustful and factious sectarian spirit” that motivates
the Catholic right remains a force to be reckoned with.

Earlier today is was reported that former US ambassador and “pro-life” Harvard professor Mary Ann Glendon (pictured at right), has decided to decline the University of Notre Dame’s highest honor, the Laetare Medal. This decision was made, she said, because of the “very serious problems” raised by the university’s invitation to President Barack Obama to be this year’s commencement speaker and the recipient of an honorary degree. Both Glendon and Obama were to be present at this year’s commencement at Notre Dame.

I believe that this latest development - or rather, twist - in the ongoing Notre Dame brouhaha owes much to the destructive power of the Catholic right, a movement that has ensured, among other things, the “Limbaugh-ization of Catholic discourse.” Glendon, it should be noted, is a revered figure among many on the increasingly “fringe” Catholic right. According to Rocco Palmo, she’s been “long ago dubbed ‘God’s Lawyer’ and the ‘First Lady’ of the Stateside church.” Palmo also notes that she is a “highly-respected figure at the Holy See.” Could a person of Glengon’s caliber be pressured into declining Notre Dame’s prestigious award by the Catholic right? We’ll probably never know for sure, but some commentators have definite opinions.

But before examining such opinions, let’s look at how some of the other key players - in particular, Fr. John Jenkins (pictured at left), president of Notre Dame, and President Obama - have responded to Glendon’s decision.

Jenkins, in a statement released this afternoon, said that although disappointed by Glendon’s decision, it is the university’s intention to award the Laetare Medal to “another deserving recipient.”

The White House has also released a statement, noting that:

President Obama is disappointed by former Ambassador Mary Glendon’s decision, but he looks forward to delivering an inclusive and respectful speech at the Notre Dame graduation, a school with a rich history of fostering the exchange of ideas. While he is honored to have the support of millions of people of all faiths, he does not govern with the expectation that everyone sees eye to eye with him on every position, and the spirit of debate and healthy disagreement on important issues is part of what he loves about this country.

Back to Glendon and what may or may not have motivated her decision. Colleen Kochivar-Baker has posted a thoughtful reflection addressing this matter on her blog, Enlightened Catholicism. Following is an excerpt.

There’s really not a great deal left to say about this situation. It saddens me that Dr. Glendon decided it was in her best interests to turn down the Laetare Medal. I see it is as a capitulation on her part to right wing political interests. She may have held out as long as she did hoping the heat would die down, but apparently she doesn’t really understand the mentality of the people who were responsible for her own political successes. Perhaps it was pay back time.

In this letter she blames it specifically on Notre Dame’s conferring an honorary degree in violation of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 2004 letter which states that Catholic universities should not confer honors on those who are in direct defiance of Catholic moral principles. She does not mention that Notre Dame sought the advice of canon lawyers as to whether this letter pertained to non-Catholics who are under no obligation to support Catholic moral doctrine. It seems these lawyers determined the letter did not apply to non-Catholics. I guess it doesn’t matter what canon lawyers think in the face of the opposition of less than 10% of the USCCB. This is a classic case of tyranny by a tiny minority over the much more vast silent majority. That’s pretty much been the case in American Catholicism for the last decade. Catholicism may not be a democracy, but it’s also not supposed to be a tyranny of the few over the many.

It looks to me that Dr. Glendon has decided it’s better to be exploited by the right than give the perception of being exploited by the left. Which says it’s not about Catholicism per se, it’s about who you will let exploit you. If Dr. Glendon was operating out of personal conviction she would have turned down the Laetare Medal as soon as she heard Obama was to give the commencement address and receive an honorary degree. The fact it’s taken her six weeks to come to this decision speaks more about concession to political interests than to her convictions.

(NOTE: To read Kochivar-Baker’s commentary in its entirety , and to read Glendon’s “open letter” to the president of Notre Dame, click here.)

Kochivar-Baker chose the following image to accompany her commentary on Glendon’s decision to decline Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal . . .

. . . and the caption Kachivar-Baker puts beneath this photo says: “Happier and headier days for Dr. Glendon. Days when politics and religion mixed very well for her career.”


Meanwhile, David Tenney, a self-described “committed member” of the “pro-life movement,” offers some insightful analysis over at dotCommonweal.

The Church’s voice on abortion is not being marginalized because of an increasing disrespect for prenatal life on the part of the public. If anything the trend in opinion polls in recent years (especially among the younger generations) has been towards a greater respect for prenatal life. The reason the Church’s message is being marginalized on this issue in America is that the pro-life movement has become so associated with the political agenda and tactics of the right wing of the Republican party. Especially given the fact that the overarching theme of conservative media at the present time is the complete demonization of Obama, I think the Church ought to be very careful about sending high profile symbolic messages that seem to fit with that theme and further contribute to the perception that the Church has simply become an attack arm of the Republican party. . . . Take for instance the e-mail message I received from Fr. Frank Pavone and Priests for Life the other day that declared: “OBAMA HAS DECLARED WAR ON THE UNBORN!” This is partisan rhetoric, not prophetic speech.

And just as I was wondering what the rest of the world thinks of all of this, I spied at dotCommonweal a link to this article from Canada, one that highlights and celebrates “Obama’s Transformational Moment.” What exactly is it talking about? Well, following are some excepts.

This is now a defining moment in world history. It is of the same magnitude as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which brought a sudden end to the Cold War. It is not just that [Obama] is of African-American descent, though that itself breaks new political ground. It is rather what he stands for: moving the world from a culture of war to a culture of peace.

. . . A culture of peace is an approach to life that seeks to transform the cultural tendencies toward war and violence into a culture where dialogue, respect and fairness govern social relations. In this way, violence can be prevented through a more tolerant global ethic. I am not saying, by any means, that all the political systems of the world are ready to operate on the principles of a culture of peace; nor am I implying that President Obama is ready for canonization. I am saying that the new president has done a startling U-turn in the manner in which he deals with other governments. Just showing some of the attributes of a culture of peace raises the level of hope that the modern world can find a way to turn away from the path of misery and annihilation to sustainable development for all.

Bill DeHaas, the individual who highlighted this particular article, opines that “it is sad that Ms. Glendon reached her decision in light of the above facts [concerning Obama’s efforts to create a culture of peace]. It appears that many are unable to see the forest for the trees.”

A quote by Henri de Lubac was also shared earlier today at dotCommonweal, one that contains a phrase that, for me, sums up very well what it is that motivates many so-called traditionalist Catholics: a “distrustful and factious sectarian spirit.”

Over at Vox Nova, an excellent overview is provided of the nature and development of this dangerous, hypocritical, and decidedly un-Christlike “spirit” - one that reminds me of the destructive figure of El Coloso (see opening image). I’ll conclude by sharing an extended excerpt from this well-written piece from Vox Nova.

Over the last quarter century or so, we have seen an increasing alliance between Catholics and right-wing evangelicals and other pseudo-conservatives in the public square, exactly matching the new intensity of discourse. In a great irony, as Weigel, Neuhaus and Novak tried to provide some intellectual underpinning behind this endeavour, the whole movement was becoming more and more anti-intellectual. It was the era of Limbaugh, Coulter, and Fox News. These figures and what they represent came in from the cold, and entered the political mainstream.

The tactic was one of constant attack against the demonized other, and they took advantage of media weakness — its reduction of everything to a case of he-said-she-said, the preference for personalities over depth, and its cheerleading the general dumbing down of the culture. It was deceptively simple — the whole noise machine would say the same thing over and over and over, until it entered conventional wisdom. It would feign outrage at the mere hint of an insult. It would always stay on the offensive. It focused on the trivial, the symbolic. It saw conspiracies everywhere, from the New York Times to the science of global warming. Strangely enough, this often worked. The media played the game. Thus things like the abolition on inheritance taxes on the very wealthy became a standard bearer for unfairness. And with the ascent of Bush and the security state, it took a far more sinister tone.

But in the fading Bush years, progressive over-reach meant that the movement began to lose steam. And the worst economic and financial crisis since the Great Depression had an amazing effects of focusing minds on what was truly important. As Obama rose in popularity, the movement became increasingly unhinged and apocalyptic as each successive wave of attack failed to dislodge him. Wasn’t he a big government liberal? No? OK, a socialist? Anti-American? How about a fascist? As each attack failed, the instigators grew more irritated. We saw Sarah Palin’s shameless attempts to bring out the worst in people during the election, all the while being utterly oblivious to matters of policy and governance. We saw the increasing unhinged post-election tactics and rhetoric. We saw a huge spike in gun sales. To merely play the back-and-forth political game and call it “Obama Derangement Sydrome” would be a gross underestimation.

Into this milieu comes a number of core life issues, especially abortion and ESCR [embryonic stem cell research]. By stressing these issues above all others, and by selectively choosing the Church teachings owed assent by the faithful, the Catholics of the right managed to associate themselves with this movement to a greater degree than ever before. For the Catholic right has borrowed the rhetoric, the style, and the tactics of the political right. Screaming about Obama being the most “anti-Catholic” or “most pro-abortion” president ever is simply the Limbaugh-ization of Catholic discourse. Catholics in other countries do not act this way, and are increasing puzzled by the behavior of their American cousins.

Of course, these tactics are defined by simplicity and certainty, black and white. There can be no equivocation. Translated into Catholic terms, this means the Democrats are wrong on a restricted number of non-negotiables and so cannot be supported, ever. They are the “party of death”. The Republicans might not be perfect, but they don’t peddle death. Well, except they do peddle death. Catholic allies of the movement are thus given two choices — defend their allies, or maintain a strict silence. Never one to stay quiet, George Weigel is still stubbornly and persistently defending the Iraq war, while the latest evidence suggests that the decisions taken by George Bush led to a million dead, 4.5 million displaced, and 5 million orphans. But Bush cannot be held responsible for the vast majority of these deaths, right? Well, sure, just as Barack Obama is not responsible for the millions of abortions that take place annually. The best charge you can level against him is that he favors keeping in place the very conditions that allow the killing of the unborn to continue (but remember, these conditions relate both to the legal framework and the accompanying socio-economic circumstances). It’s not so simple after all, is it?

The outcome is slightly disconcerting. While the Catholic right obsesses over the Obama invitation to Notre Dame in apocalyptic terms, there is a huge silence over the release of the torture memos, the final proof that the Bush regime greenlighted the torturing of prisoners, something the Church deems intrinsically evil, and something Obama has ended. The response? Silence, or sad attempts to give Bush the benefit of the doubt.

The Catholic right may think they have won a major tactical victory with the “watershed moment” over Obama’s appearance at Notre Dame, but nothing could be further from the truth. More and more, the core life issues of abortion and ESCR will be seen as the domain of the crazy fringe, and will become more disassociated from the broader culture of life issues that define Church teaching. The reaction of many supposed pro-life Catholics to Iraq and to torture will not be forgotten. And that is an absolute disaster if Catholics have any hope of persuading the general culture that abortion is not a “right” to be cherished, much as Catholics have slowly but surely been turning the tide against the death penalty. When I see the lists circulating on the right pertaining to Obama’s abortion sins, these lists seem dominated by the fact that he is appointing people who support legalized abortion to various posts. What is left unsaid is that he is appointing people whose views on these matters are very much part of the mainstream. And because of the utterly failed tactics of the Catholic right, they will remain part of the mainstream. And that is the real tragedy.

Recommended Off-site Links:
Safe, Legal, and Early - A New Way of Thinking About Abortion - Steven Waldman (, April 27, 2009).
The Battle to Control Catholic Commencements - Elizabeth Redden (, April 28, 2009).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
What the Notre Dame Controversy is Really About and What’s Really at Stake
A Mountain Out of a Molehill
The Bishops and Obama (Part 1)
The Bishops and Obama (Part 2)
What Does It Mean to Be a Catholic University?
A Not So “New” Catholic University

Opening Image: “El Coloso,” a painting that at one time was attributed to Francisco de Goya, but which is now believed to have been painted by his apprentice Asensio Juliá. Wikipedia notes that: “The enormous body of the giant takes up the center of the composition. It seems to adopt an aggressive posture, judging by the position of the arm and the closed fist. The painting was painted during the Peninsular War, and could represent this war. . . . The giants attitude has been the object of various interpretations. It is not known whether he is walking or standing. His posture is also ambiguous; he could be amongst the mountains or buried up to his knees. . . . The giant’s eyes are closed, which could represent blind violence. Contrasting with the erect figure of the giant, small figures of the village people appear in the valley that seem to be fleeing in all directions, with the exception of a donkey which remains calm, which could symbolize . . . the incomprehension of war.”


Tc said...

Great analysis, Michael. I particularly like the dotCommonweal bit.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Thanks, Thom.

CDE said...

Colleen left out some essential information about the developments in the relationship between Father Jenkins and his local ordinary, Bishop D'Arcy.

I've commented on this over on her blog.

CKUST said...

Why do you assume she is being manipulated? Is it possible that she discerned this prayerfully and decided that accepting this honor would go against what she believes in and what she believes UND, as a Catholic insitution, should really stand for?

I like how you slander anyone who disagrees with the Obama award as being a member of the fringe right or the Limbaugh wing of the Church. Could it be they are following their conscience?

Michael J. Bayly said...


Thanks for stopping by and sharing your perspective.

As I say in my post, we'll probably never know for sure what motivated Glendon to decline Notre Dame's award. But it certainly shouldn't be off-limits to speculate, or even opine, that she felt pressured by the Catholic right.

I think Colleen Kochivar-Baker says it best: "If Dr. Glendon was operating out of personal conviction she would have turned down the Laetare Medal as soon as she heard Obama was to give the commencement address and receive an honorary degree. The fact it’s taken her six weeks to come to this decision speaks more about concession to political interests than to her convictions."

You say: "I like how you slander anyone who disagrees with the Obama award as being a member of the fringe right or the Limbaugh wing of the Church. Could it be they are following their conscience?"

So tell me, CKUST, those Catholics who are not part of the "fringe right or the Limbaugh wing of the Church" yet who are following their conscience and objecting to Obama's presence at Notre Dame, are they also objecting to the tactics of said "fringe" Catholic right? Do you recognize and/or support the "Limbaugh-ization of Catholic discourse"?

I'm fine with anyone objecting out of conscience to the policies of Obama or any politician. It's the way they go about expressing their objection that concerns me. Also, I'm not entirely convinced that all on the Catholic right are acting solely out of conscience with regards to the sanctity of life. As the Vox Nova article notes, many seem to be very selective when it comes to the lives they're willing to stand up for.

Embryo - yes. So-called "Enemy combatant" - no.

Doesn't this bother you?



ck@ust said...

Thank you for taking the time to write a detailed post.

First off, it comes down to one issue and that is Life and the fact that the President is the most anti-life President we have had. I follow the left wing hate speech just as much as I do the right.

Embryo = human life, enemy combatant = human life, death row inmate = human life.

I can fault the Republicans just as much for their anti-life position on the death penalty as I do. That being said, a core Catholic tenant is protection of all human life, especially that of the most vulnerable, the unborn.

Did you read the interview that Cardinal George gave about his meeting with the President? The Cardinal insinuated and I believe that President Obama is so beholden to Planned Parenthood, NOW, etc, that he may very well be personally pro-life but realizes if he were to be anything other would be political suicide and there would be hell to pay.

By inviting this President to receive such an honorary degree after less than 3 months in office and considering his abortion record both as President and as an Illinois state Senator is something that NO CATHOLIC institution should support. This is what the Ambassador and so many Bishops are saying.

Did you read her statement? What made her uncomfortable in her own words was UND almost positioning her as the anti-Obama to provide balance to the debate. UND's own press releases very much indicated that. Good for her for standing on her principals.

By the way, I do not support he Limbaughization or Hannitzing of America just as much as I don't support the Olberman, Matthews, Maddow-izing of America. Do you?

ck@ust said...


As a Roman Catholic, I am ready to stand against and condemn the anti-life policies of the Republicans. Are you or any of your readers willing to do the same against the anti-life policies of the Democrats?

colkoch said...

Michael, I didn't write it, but that little cynical brat part of me actually thought she waited to drop this bomb until it appeared that the Notre Dame story had run it's course.

What ever her actual intent, it's certainly fired this 'controversy' back up.

Clayton left a long comment on my blog citing D'arcy's letter of April 21. I was aware of this letter but didn't cite it as I see Notre Dame as a non diocesan entity accountable not to the diocese but to it's board of directors.

Essentially D'Arcy has an advisory role, not an authority role---unless you want to read far more into a bishop's canonical authority than I think is justified. D'Arcy's letter seems to indicate Fr. Jenkins hurt his feelings more than anything else.