Obama's Catholic Moment

By John Gehring 5-23-2009

Against the backdrop of protest and spectacle that threatened to overshadow graduation at the University of Notre Dame last week, President Obama delivered a graceful commencement address that stands as a dignified rebuke to divisive, single-issue ideologues.

While protesters flew a plane over campus with graphic images of an aborted fetus and attempted to demonize the president at every turn, Obama's call for "open hearts, open minds, and fair-minded words" served as a healthy model for the day's young graduates. Grown-up liberals and conservatives who caricature opponents with crass denunciations that undermine hope for reasoned debate could also learn a few things from this speech.

Notre Dame President Fr. John Jenkins praised the president as a leader with deep respect for the role of faith and whose commitment to universal health care, compassionate immigration reform, nuclear disarmament, and racial reconciliation reflect traditional Catholic values. Fr. Jenkins strongly reiterated Catholic opposition to abortion, but also commended Obama for coming to Notre Dame in a spirit of respectful dialogue. In doing so, Fr. Jenkins honored a Catholic intellectual tradition that rejects the slash-and-burn rhetorical extremism so prevalent in a culture where cable news shouting matches reduce complex issues to simplistic sound bites.

President Obama rose to the occasion and used the most important Catholic moment of his presidency so far to acknowledge the moral dimension of abortion. He emphasized the need to support pregnant women and reduce the number of unintended pregnancies, called for greater access to adoption, and supported sensible medical conscience clauses grounded in clear ethics and sound science. This appeal to common ground is a cause for hope that could help unite pro-life and pro-choice leaders behind a comprehensive approach that supports families and helps prevent the tragedy of abortion. Unlike some Catholic bishops who decried Notre Dame's invitation to President Obama as an embarrassment and a scandal, an editorial in the Vatican's newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, commended the president's speech for inviting "Americans of every faith and ideological conviction to 'work in common effort' to reduce the number of abortions." Last month, the Vatican newspaper noted that the president's first 100 days in office have not confirmed the Catholic Church's worst fears about policy changes on ethical issues such as embryonic stem-cell research. These temperate words from the Vatican offer a welcome anecdote from the defensive, "man-the-torpedoes" posture adopted by a vociferous minority of U.S. bishops.

The Catholic Church is not a single-issue faith or the arm of any political party. Notre Dame and other Catholic universities graduate young men and women ready to confront the great issues of our time with moral clarity and intellectual vigor. An engaged Catholicism does not fear the diverse ideas of a pluralistic democracy or slam the doors on those we disagree with on polarizing issues. It brings faith and reason to the always imperfect task of touching minds and hearts through principled dialogue guided by love and mutual respect. On a spring day in May, this proud tradition shined as bright as the Golden Dome at Notre Dame.

John Gehring is the Deputy Communications Director and Senior Writer for Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.

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