President Obama gave the commencement address at Notre Dame this past weekend, following weeks of protest and disagreement from within the Catholic Church and beyond. Pro-life advocates were unhappy and pro-choice advocates saw this occasion as a step in the right direction.

Now that the occasion has come and gone there are several things worthy of comment concerning what the "real" issues were in this instance.

1. The real issue here was not “academic freedom.” It never was the issue even though the press spun it this way. Notre Dame is totally free to invite the president of the United States to deliver such a commencement address on such an occasion. This was never the real debate.

2. The granting of an doctoral degree, which is given as an honor if it means anything at all, was always the real issue here. The U. S. Catholic Bishops issued a statement in 2004 which said Catholic institutions “should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles.” Notre Dame’s administration acted in “defiance” of the clear and unambiguous moral teaching of the Catholic Church. No one can seriously deny this point. And the same U. S. Bishops statement in 2004 added that persons who defy the teaching of the Catholic Church on this type of moral issue “should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.” Can anyone doubt that this is what happened at Notre Dame?

3. Multitudes in the media acted as if the Catholic Church, and especially those bishops and priests who protested this degree, were the parties who were in the wrong in this instance. Former N.Y. Governor Mario Cuomo, a Catholic who has never supported the moral teaching of his own church on this issue, was even brought into the news cycle to pronounce his views on the matter. I wonder why? Answer: He never allowed Catholic moral teaching to impact his leadership in the 1980s and the media knows where to go to find Catholics who disagree with the moral teaching of the church.

When Cardinal Francis George, the leader of the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, spoke out against Notre Dame and said this was “an extreme embarrassment” for a Catholic university to confer such an honor on a strongly pro-choice president Chicago's mayoral brother, Bill Daley, called Cardinal George’s stance “an extreme embarrassment for Chicago Catholics.” This is the same Bill Daley who ran Al Gore’s presidential campaign and who is often directly involved in major political decision making in this city and the Democratic Party. Now he "speaks" for Catholics in Chicago.

Notredame_protests_051609 During Lent we had to hear Bill Daley lecturing the Cardinal and the Catholic Church about what belongs to Caesar. I have to agree with columnist John Kass, of the Chicago Tribune, who wrote on Saturday: “All that loud political anger was aimed at a priest who stood for his faith, as he prepared for Easter. Though I’m not a Roman Catholic

[the columnist is Greek Orthodox], I was hurt and personally sickened by the attacks against Cardinal George" I agree with John Kass. We do not need the state telling the church what is right and wrong anymore than we need the church seeking control of the state.

This is an instance where all Christians should stand as one for the defense of the lives of innocent unborn children. Who will defend these children if the church keeps its views silent? Surely not Catholics like the mayor and his brother, or governors like Mario Cuomo.

4. I wrote last week that the real hero in this debacle was Mary Ann Glendon, who turned down Notre Dame’s highest award to be given to her at the same ceremony. She did it without mocking or ridiculing anyone. She wrote a reasoned and clear letter to the president of the university and simply said, "No."

The university tried to find another Catholic who would accept this award and thankfully there were no takers. Maybe this says a lot more about the Catholic Church, and multitudes of faithful lay leaders who could have received this cherished award, than the press noticed. I feel quite sure that it does.

One thing we do know. Christians who believe their faith teaches them to oppose abortion will continue to be depicted as intolerant extremists by most in the media, at least for the foreseeable future. This should not stop people who believe abortion is morally wrong from saying so and thus from being consistent in how they live their faith at this crucial point. On the Day of Judgment I have a distinct impression that this will matter a whole lot more than the approval of mankind.

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  1. Chris Criminger May 18, 2009 at 8:02 am

    Hi John,
    Thanks for these good insights. The sad truth is when I talk to many of my Christian friends and even how Christians vote in the church, the issue of abortion typically does not even count anymore.
    And there are a growing number of Christian leaders that even support Roe vs. Wade now. For example of this, read John Caputo “What Would Jesus Deconstruct?” I find it a strange new logic I hear by some Christians who say they want to limit the number of abortions but want to empower the nation-state even more to enforce justice and the good for the whole society while the umbrella of liberal democratic principles seem to be the ruling ethic rather than the alternative society, the church.
    In the end, if conservatives have been quilty of turning Jesus into a mirror image of themselves politically, now liberal Christians do the same thing demonizing the politicalization of the faith by the religous right but now they know they can do it better.

  2. Derek Taylor May 18, 2009 at 8:22 am

    John, you framed this issue really well. It was also interesting to read about some of Notre Dame’s alumni and donors, many of whom feel that this was less about Obama and abortion than it was a coup d’etat on the part of the school’s leadership – and a violation of trust. I think that’s how any of us would feel if we donated thousands or millions of our life’s savings to an institution once so trustworthy and faithful.

  3. John Paul Todd May 18, 2009 at 10:38 am

    Maybe now is a good time to ask a few simple questions given the following observations:
    1) Your recent post on what you want ACT3 to be known by- a catalyst for missional ecumenism in the third century.
    2) The major differences in the abortion issue in our nation, and most critically in our churches.
    3) And (to me what should be the most obvious of all) a significant number of those who possess the Spirit of Christ who refuse to let abortion be “THE” issue for the Christian living in the American culture to define what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ on His mission to the world.
    The simple questions:
    1) In the name of unity, don’t you think it would be wiser to discover why all Christians are not ready to take the same stand as the officail Roman Catholic Church takes?
    2) Isn’t it possible, that with an eye to the judgment we will face and in seeking to have a clear conscience before God, that some devout Christians are in fact registering an equally valid concern for other closely related evils against the sanctity of human life by refusing to join the “anti-abortion” stance?
    3) Is it possible for Christians in our country to even separate the major elements that is driving this whole issue, every one of which belongs to the “old” creation and not to the new creation in Christ?
    I am not entering the debate, simply asking a very dear friend who wants to be all about calling the Church to her God created unity and demonstrating that unity before the watching world as we take Christ himself and His new humanity into every place where His healing of the nations is so desperately calling us.

    • Raffi November 30, 2012 at 1:26 am

      I can’t stand pro-forced birth. It denigrates the flmaee population to making their bodies a crime scene. I want desprately to be a cop one day but that is one crime scene I couldn’t examine without total consent from the women. Making abortion illegal is going to throw us back to days of back alley coat hanger abortions. Not a world I want to live in.

  4. Nick Morgan May 18, 2009 at 12:00 pm

    Great post John, I believe you “hit the nail on the head” here. It was a sad day for all pro-life Christians, especially Catholics. However, Christ and His church are not defeated by politics, even when some who claim to be His people are the primary ones causing the scandal.
    God bless!

  5. Adam S May 18, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    I understand your reasoning, but I think this does come down to politics. George W Bush received an honorary degree in 2001 even though he is a supporter of the death penalty (a violation of Catholic teaching), Clinton received an honorary degree when he spoke even though he was a supporter of abortion. George HW Bush received an honorary degree in 1992 after the first gulf war, even though the Pope was a vocal opponent to the first Gulf war. Reagan, Eisenhower and FDR also received honorary degrees from Notre Dame. I am sure they had policies that went against Catholic teaching as well.

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