Joseph Bottum on Obama and Notre Dame:

Says it is an issue of Catholic culture, more than Catholic politics. An interesting thesis and one that seems intuitively correct to me:

You could cut the irony with a knife: It’s only demonizing when conservatives do it. Still Fr. Himes joins Douglas Kmiec, and America, and Commonweal, and the administration of Notre Dame, and most of the newspaper columnists who’ve weighed in on the controversy, and a surprising number of conservatives. They all look at the Notre Dame protests and think it must be about politics. Bad politics or good politics, take your pick. But politics all the way down.

As it happens, they’re wrong. Politics has very little to do with the mess. This isn’t a fight about who won the last presidential election and how he’s going to deal with abortion. It’s a fight about culture–the culture of American Catholicism, and how Notre Dame, still living in a 1970s Catholic world, has suddenly awakened to find itself out of date.

The role of culture is what Fr. Jenkins at Notre Dame and many other presidents of Catholic colleges don’t quite get, and their lack of culture is what makes them sometimes seem so un-Catholic–though the charge befuddles them whenever it is made. As perhaps it ought. They know very well that they are Catholics: They go to Mass, and they pray, and their faith is real, and their theology is sophisticated, and what right has a bunch of other Catholics to run around accusing them of failing to be Catholic?

But, in fact, they live in a different world from most American Catholics. Opposition to abortion doesn’t stand at the center of Catholic theology. It doesn’t even stand at the center of Catholic faith. It does stand, however, at the center of Catholic culture in this country. Opposition to abortion is the signpost at the intersection of Catholicism and American public life. And those who–by inclination or politics–fail to grasp this fact will all eventually find themselves in the situation that Fr. Jenkins has now created for himself. Culturally out of touch, they rail that the antagonism must derive from politics. But it doesn’t. It derives from the sense of the faithful that abortion is important. It derives from the feeling of many ordinary Catholics that the Church ought to stand for something in public life–and that something is opposition to abortion.


Still, in a peculiar way, Himes is right that “some people have simply reduced Catholicism to the abortion issue.” It is a horrifying fact, in many ways, that Roe v. Wade has done more to provide Catholic identity than any other event of the last 50 years. Still, for American Catholics, the Church is a refuge and bulwark against an ambient culture that erodes morality and undermines families. Catholic culture is their counterculture, their means of upholding the dignity of the human person and the integrity of family–and, in that context, the centrality of abortion for American Catholic culture seems much less arbitrary than it first appeared.

This is what the leaders of Notre Dame need to grasp.

By the way, he isn’t too impressed with you guys (remember–I’m just the messenger):

Even some conservatives, Obama’s natural opponents, took the school’s side and denounced Mary Ann Glendon for refusing this year’s Laetare Medal, Notre Dame’s annual honor for service to the Church and society. A Harvard law professor, author of the widely cited Rights Talk, and the former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, Glendon is well known for her basic niceness and her well-mannered willingness to join attempts at coalition building between left and right.

Her decision was no personal caprice. Back in 2004, the American bishops reached a compromise between their own left and right contingents and issued a carefully worded document called “Catholics in Political Life.” “Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles,” the bishops agreed [emphasis in the original]. “[Such people] should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.” In part, this explains why, at the present moment, not a single American bishop is supporting Notre Dame in its clash with the bishop of South Bend, John D’Arcy–and bishops from 68 of the 195 American dioceses have publicly chastised the school. What was the point of all that careful work by the bishops if Catholic institutions are simply going to ignore it?

Anyway, Glendon had first accepted the invitation to receive the medal back in December. In March came the announcement of Obama’s honorary degree, and then the school’s lashing out at critics, and then the leaking of Notre Dame’s official talking points, which instructed the university’s spokesmen to reply to complaints: “President Obama won’t be doing all the talking. Mary Ann Glendon, the former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, will be speaking as the recipient of the Laetare Medal.” Glendon decided she didn’t much like being a makeweight, so she wrote on April 27 to decline the medal, saying that Notre Dame’s refusal even to speak with its local bishop threatened a “ripple effect” that could lead “other Catholic schools . . . to disregard the bishops’ guidelines.” The university’s president, Fr. John Jenkins, had ratcheted the situation up, and up, and up, until even the gracious Mary Ann Glendon was forced to choose between the bishops and Notre Dame. What made them imagine she could possibly choose Notre Dame?

That wasn’t how some saw it, of course. The comments about Glendon left, for example, on the libertarian law professors’ blog The Volokh Conspiracy are well worth reading: a hilariously incoherent recital of a hundred years’ worth of anti-Catholic tropes–mashed together with the thin-skinned reaction of Obama’s supporters to any criticism of their leader and spiced with a conservative complaint that Glendon is childishly picking up her ball and going home, retreating into irrelevance instead of fighting the good fight.

On the other hand, polls indicate that the majority of Catholics support the Obama invitation:

A survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life from April 23 to 27 found that half of Catholics aware of the speech thought it was right to invite Mr. Obama; 28% said it was wrong; and 22% had no opinion. In the November election, 54% of Catholics voted for Mr. Obama.

Prof. Campbell said 85% of the students he has polled supported Mr. Obama’s visit. Among graduating seniors who do not support the visit, many will protest by wearing an image of a golden cross between two baby feet on top of their mortarboards.

An interesting–and as you surely can infer from these snippets–provocative article.


There is a very informed discussion in the Comments about the various polls on this topic in addition to the Pew poll, in particular a Rasmussen poll. They have a very wide divergence in results depending on the framing of the question. I take no side on the question of which is most methodologically sound, I just wanted to alert readers that there are other polls that show different results. Thanks to readers for alerting me to the Rasmussen poll.

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