Monday, May 04, 2009

American Catholics and Obama

A number of insightful comments by Catholics have been left on the website of the New York Times in response to a commentary written by Elizabeth Lev, daughter of former US ambassador and “pro-life” Harvard professor Mary Ann Glendon.

As I’m sure you are aware, Glendon announced last week that she was declining the University of Notre Dame’s prestigious Laetare Medal over the school’s decision to honor President Barack Obama, who supports abortion rights, at its commencement ceremony next month.

But before taking a look at some of these comments, I have to admit that when it comes to the whole Obama/Notre Dame situation I find the level of outrage by members of the Catholic Right (i.e., those Catholics hostile to reform and unquestionably aligned with the Church’s teaching on what are offered termed “family values,” and thus, more often than not, the policies of the Republican party) to be embarrassing, disturbing, and hypocritical. The following excerpt from a commentary at Vox Nova, along with a number of comments left in response to Elizabeth Lev’s New York Times commentary (see further below) will perhaps help explain where I’m coming from.

Let’s start by taking a quick look at what Vox Nova has to say about some American Catholics’ almost rabid reaction to Barack Obama.

When Obama was elected, the ferocity of the opposition among the Catholic right took me a little by surprise. This is a man whose views on abortion, while indefensible, are nonetheless fully in line with Bill Clinton and the vast majority of Democrats as well as a good chunk of Republicans. Since the election, he has restored the abortion status quo to the Clinton years. He has permitted public funds to be used for embryonic stem cell research, but he applied the exact same safeguards approved by the Clinton administration in 2000, but never implemented — basically, a prohibition on creating life to destroy it.

And yet he is dubbed, so commonly in right-wing Catholic circles and across the me-too Catholic blogosphere as the “most pro-abortion president ever.” Huh? I fail to see how he is more “pro-abortion” than Clinton. And if you really want to get into it, how about Ronald Reagan? After all, this is a man whose liberalization of abortion laws in California paved the way for abortion on demand and the Roe decision, a man whose public opposition to abortion was backed up neither by his supreme court nominees nor his social policies — and remember, the Declaration on Procured Abortion deems policies to mitigate abortion as important as penal sanctions (it is no accident that the steepest drop in abortion rates took place during Clinton’s two terms).

Okay, moving on to some of the comments by Catholics in response to Elizabeth Kev’s defense of her mother’s decision to decline Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal.

Although I don’t necessarily agree with the following writer’s conclusion, I believe he raises some legitimate points about Glendon’s dubious association with the Bush regime.

[Mary Ann] Glendon was [President George W. Bush’s] representative to a government [i.e., the Vatican] that opposed the war in Iraq and considered one of its key methods, torturing prisoners, to be an unquestionably intrinsic evil of grave matter.

Is it possible that this issue never came up in the regular discussions between the two governments? Of course not. And Glendon was presented with two choices when it did: (1) defend the policies of her boss, the president; (2) if she disagreed with these policies, resign. Thus, she must have been willing to defend intrinsic evil of grave matter.

Thus, her snub of the Notre Dame award is nothing more than a transparent exercise in self-righteousness.

And then there is the following comment from “John of Philadelphia” that I found interesting, especially with regards to St. Thomas Aquinas’ view on abortion:

[A previous writer] is correct in citing St. Thomas Aquinas’ support of capital punishment. However, the same saint and theologian also believed abortion to be immoral only after “quickening,” during the second trimester.

John Paul II clearly condemned capital punishment, especially as practiced in the United States, not only as a sin against the sanctity of human life, but as a sin against justice, since the vast majority of those on death row are impoverished. John Paul II even tried to get the governor of Florida to stay the execution of Ted Bundy.

The charge of “cafeteria Catholics” goes both ways: some Catholics choose to ignore the church’s teachings on artificial means of birth control and a woman’s right to choose to abort; other Catholics (including, shamefully, some Bishops) choose to ignore the church’s teaching condemning capital punishment and the conduct of illegal and immoral wars, not to mention the use of torture.

I’m sorry, Ms Lev, but your mother’s tacit approval of the Bush administration’s support for capital punishment and the conduct of an immoral war does not give her the moral high ground in her condemnation of the current President. In fact, I believe it could be argued that this President is more closely aligned with Catholic social teaching than any President before him.

When challenged by “SusanL,” John responded with the following:

SusanL, I appreciate your fervor, but I must insist that if you supported President Bush you give clear evidence of “cafeteria Catholicism.” You cannot really support either party if you are Catholic – the Democrats for their stance on abortion, the Republicans for their social justice stance and their support of a culture of death (war, torture, and government-sponsored killing). If you support one party over the other, you have made your selection from the lady in the hair net behind the counter.

I made my choice and am proud to identify myself as a “cafeteria Catholic” – I believe in Thomas Aquinas’ definition of when life begins (ensoulment occurs at quickening), no pope has ever spoken ex cathedra on the matter (which one would dare debate the Dominican saint?), and, as a male who will never get pregnant, I believe I have no right to EVER tell a woman what she may or may not do with her body. I also believe in the use of artificial contraceptives, especially barrier methods in order to prevent the spread of disease, a belief shared by a draft committee of US Bishops in response to the AIDS epidemic but vetoed by . . . John Cardinal O’Connor.

I believe in Jesus’ message of love and tolerance. I believe in Jesus’ condemnation of those who preach adherence to rules and laws as a means of salvation. I believe in the Eucharist and the other six sacraments. I believe in the power of forgiveness, even when it isn’t requested. And, like Jesus, I reserve my anger only toward those who are intolerant, self-righteous, bigoted, and who maintain a holier-than-thou attitude, standing in judgment of their brothers and sisters, especially those in pain. And, by the way, that includes the current pontiff who, as Prefect for the Congregation of the Faith, caused no end of increased pain to those who were dying of AIDS. Their cries asking why the Church hates them still haunt me.

I agree with President Obama. I, too, would like to see an end to abortion in this country and throughout the world. Together we can begin the hard work of creating a society where abortion would not need to be considered as necessary. We can create a culture that the sainted former Cardinal from Chicago, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, termed a “seamless garment of ethics” in its valuation of human life – one that makes no distinction on the value of one’s life based on wealth, power, prestige, color, gender, sexual orientation, faith or lack of faith, but that values all human life as a reflection of the Creator.

The answer is NOT making abortion illegal and unsafe. That has never worked. The answer is doing the hard work of building a society that provides meaningful alternatives throughout the journey of life we all share. Instead of spending money on weapons of mass destruction and instruments of death, we need to spend money on programs of prenatal care, childcare, improved access to healthcare across the spectrum of our lives.

We finally have a president who believes this and supports this goal. For me, this is a cause for rejoicing. For me, this is more closely aligned with my Catholic faith than a president who espoused first-strike aggression, torture of prisoners, and who embraced a culture of death and disregard for the poor, the sick, the hungry, and the homeless.

It’s all very interesting but I have found myself wondering just how many Catholics are actually aware and/or concerned (one way or the other) about the ongoing Notre Dame brouhaha. Thankfully, the Pew Forum provides some answers.

In an April 30 article entitled “Obama, Catholics and the Notre Dame Commencement,” the Pew Forum notes the following.

In both their awareness and views of the Notre Dame controversy, Catholics look very much like the public overall. Only about half of Catholics have heard about the controversy and fewer than one-in-five (19%) have heard a lot about it. Among the general population, 48% have heard of the controversy and 16% have heard a lot about it. Overall, about half of Catholics support the decision to invite Obama to deliver the commencement address and receive an honorary degree in spite of his support for abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research. Far fewer (28%) say Notre Dame was wrong to have invited Obama and more than one-in-five Catholics (22%) express no opinion on the matter. Among the population overall, 48% say Notre Dame made the right decision to invite Obama, 25% say it was the wrong decision and 27% express no opinion.

. . . The absence of a general backlash on the part of Catholics to Notre Dame’s invitation to Obama may not come as a surprise, given that most Catholics voted for Obama in the 2008 election and give him positive marks for his performance in office thus far. Obama won 54% of the overall Catholic vote in the November presidential election. Weekly attending Catholics, who in recent elections have tended to support Republican candidates, were evenly divided between Obama (49%) and McCain (50%).

Similarly, the most recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press finds that fully two-thirds of Catholics, including a majority of white, non-Hispanic Catholics (55%), say they approve of Obama’s job performance as president. Overall, Catholics’ views of Obama closely match the views of the population as a whole. Catholics are much more supportive of the president than are white evangelical Protestants (33%) and slightly more supportive than are white mainline Protestants (60%), but they are less enthusiastic about Obama’s performance than are black Protestants (96%) and the religiously unaffiliated (81%).

. . . Catholics’ overall approval of Obama is consistent with the fact that many Catholics themselves do not share the Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion and embryonic stem cell research. But though the balance of Catholic opinion in the poll leans in support of both legal abortion and stem cell research, the Catholic community continues to be deeply divided on these issues depending on frequency of Mass attendance.

. . . Polling data show . . . that abortion is only one of the factors that influences people’s opinions and political decision-making, and it ranks relatively low compared with other issues. In the 2008 election, for instance, Pew Research Center polls show that concerns about the economy were most important in voters' decision-making, by a wide margin. Concerns about jobs, energy, health care and education also mattered greatly to the overwhelming majority of voters, including Catholics. By comparison, concerns about abortion were much less important, with only 39% of Catholics saying abortion would be a very important issue in their decision about how to vote. Only gay marriage was cited by a smaller number (21%).

Finally, I think it’s important to note that the Catholic Right’s reaction to President Obama (and other secular leaders whose policies do not align with Church teachings) is uniquely American - a reaction that is not shared by Catholics in other parts of the world, including the Vatican.

As Catholic theologian Richard R. Gaillardetz points out in a recent Toledo Blade commentary:

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.

Gaillardetz suggests that “perhaps the [U.S. Catholic] bishops who have been so eager to condemn Notre Dame would better spend their dwindling moral capital by following the Vatican’s lead.”

Yes . . . as would other members of the American Catholic Right.

Recommended Off-site Links:
Another View on Obama, Notre Dame - Richard R. Gaillardetz (Toledo Blade, April 25, 2009).
Obama Reveals Task Force to Reduce Abortions - Thomas C. Fox (National Catholic Reporter, April 30, 2009).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
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)

No comments: