Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Catholic Theologian: "The President of Notre Dame is Following the Example Set by the Vatican"

Richard R. Gaillardetz (pictured at left) is a Catholic theologian for whom I have a lot of respect. The author of numerous books, including The Church in the Making and By What Authority: A Primer on Scripture, the Magisterium, and the Sense of the Faithful, Gaillardetz currently holds the Margaret and Thomas Murray and James J. Bacik Endowed Chair in Catholic Studies at the University of Toledo.

I had the honor of meeting Gaillardetz in April 2008 when he spoke at Call to Action Minnesota’s Spring Conference. His two presentations at that event focused on “Renewing the Baptismal Priesthood” and “Rethinking Hierarchy: Building a Community of Holy Conversation.”

As I noted in a previous post, Gaillardetz recently had published in the Toledo Blade an insightful op-ed on the ongoing brouhaha at the University of Notre Dame. It’s reprinted below in its entirety.


Another View on Obama, Notre Dame
By Richard R. Gaillardetz
Toledo Blade
April 25, 2009

The latest controversy du jour in the American Catholic Church concerns Notre Dame’s decision to invite President Obama to give the May 17 commencement address. As is customary, he will also receive an honorary degree. This has created an uproar among leading voices on the Catholic Right. Randall Terry, recent convert to Catholicism and outspoken anti-abortion advocate, warns that an Obama commencement address would constitute the “cultural rape of true Catholicity.” The Bishop of South Bend, John D’Arcy, has declared that he will not attend the commencement. The current president of the U.S. Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Archbishop Francis George, has suggested that in inviting President Obama the university seems not to understand what it means to be Catholic.

What is most interesting about this entire affair, however, is the peculiar silence of the Vatican. There is much to learn here. A little over 100 years ago, Pope Leo XIII condemned the evils of “Americanism,” the purportedly heretical American Catholic embrace of, among other things, religious liberty and the legitimate separation of church and state. At that time, leading American bishops sought, to no avail, to convince the Vatican that the American separation of church and state should not be confused with the anti-church version championed during the French Revolution. In the United States, the separation of church and state actually freed the church for a healthy and vigorous cultural engagement.

A half century or so later at the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic church embraced much of what Pope Leo had condemned.

In his recent trip to the United States, Pope Benedict XVI made a point of praising the American separation of church and state as a cultural framework that made possible the flourishing of religion. The Vatican now seems to have embraced the values that some of our current American bishops have forgotten. The Vatican practices a pragmatic realism when it engages public leaders. Our last two popes have met with political leaders from across the ideological spectrum, forthrightly criticizing policies they found problematic while working to find areas of common ground. This pragmatism extends to the practice of offering honorary titles. In 2007, French President Sarkozy, an admittedly lapsed Catholic who has been divorced twice and supports legal abortion was, following a long standing custom, made an honorary canon of the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome.

Pope Benedict is, I suspect, particularly sensitive to the need for prominent universities to encourage engagement with differing viewpoints. In 2008, the Pope was invited to speak at La Sapienza University, a secular Italian university. The event was canceled after faculty and students publicly protested the papal invitation because of the Pope’s purportedly “obscurantist” views on science.

The president of Notre Dame is following the example set by the Vatican. He has made it clear that Notre Dame’s invitation to speak should not be construed as a comprehensive embrace of all of the President's viewpoints and policy initiatives. The conferral of an honorary degree is a customary gesture of respect for the standing of prominent speakers. Commencement invitations are an opportunity for universities (including Catholic universities) to allow their graduates to engage the ideals and public vision of significant public officials.

Perhaps the bishops who have been so eager to condemn Notre Dame would better spend their dwindling moral capital by following the Vatican’s lead. That would mean encouraging the President to use this invitation to respond to legitimate Catholic policy concerns. President Obama has in the past demonstrated his ability to turn controversy into an opportunity to reframe debate. With proper encouragement, this speech could be Mr. Obama’s newest “Jeremiah Wright” moment.

Richard R. Gaillardetz, PhD, is the Murray/Bacik Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Toledo.

For more of Richard Gaillardetz at The Wild Reed, see:
Reading the Documents of Vatican II (Part 1)
Reading the Documents of Vatican II (Part 2)
Reading the Documents of Vatican II (Part 3)
The “Perfect Papal Visit” Will Require a “Listening Pope”

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
American Catholics and Obama
It’s Still Out There
Responding to Bishop John “We Are at War” Finn
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)


Anonymous said...

My understanding is that the Vatican is becoming increasingly worried about the extreemest views of the Catholic right in this country. It seems that more and more converts are coming from fundamentalist backgrounds and bringing that worldview with them. In addition there is more and more cooperation with fundamentalist Christian churches on their only two issues of concern: abortion and gay rights issues. Let's hope this is tempered before the American church is destroyed in this country.

fsc said...

Well the liberals were unable to destroy the Church in the 1960's through the 1990's so I doubt the conservatives will be able to now. She is pretty resilient!