Obama & Notre Dame

“There are some ideas and some causes that a Catholic college campus cannot treat pleasantly,” wrote the outraged editors. “Doesn’t deliberate opposition to Catholic social doctrine come close to being anti-Catholic?”

History can be humbling. The editors eager to censor views they disagreed with were the Jesuits at America. The object of their ire was the outspoken conservative William F. Buckley Jr. The year was 1961, and the dispute erupted over an editorial in Buckley’s magazine, the National Review. Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Mater et magistra, the editorial claimed, “struck many as a venture in triviality.” The National Review editors speculated that the new encyclical would, like Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors, “become the source of embarrassed explanations.” Buckley had judged Mater et magistra insufficiently alarmed over the threat of communism, and in turn America’s editors judged Buckley insufficiently docile in his reception of doctrine, and urged that he be banned from speaking at Catholic colleges. The National Review is “a journal which, in our opinion, seriously and consistently undercuts positions which we judge to be central to our faith, the natural law, or the explicit and long established social doctrines of the church,” wrote America’s editors. Thus what might have been an honest and useful dispute over the interpretation and scope of church teaching quickly degenerated into a show trial regarding Buckley’s Catholic loyalties. (See Garry Wills’s Politics and Catholic Freedom.)

It would be helpful for those currently leveling charges of disloyalty at the University of Notre Dame and its president, John Jenkins, CSC, to revisit the Buckley imbroglio. The university’s invitation to President Barack Obama to give this year’s commencement address has ignited a kind of inquisition, which has more than a passing resemblance to what Garry Wills called the “brutal use of doctrinal suspicion” against Buckley.

The Buckley and Obama incidents are not, of course, strictly analogous. Obama is not a Catholic, and his support for legalized abortion is a more serious problem than Buckley’s alleged rejection of papal teaching. But abortion is not only a moral issue; it is also a political problem, and politics requires prudential judgment and compromise, not just prophetic denunciation. Prudential judgment was also needed in assessing Pope John’s encyclical. In both cases, however, the real issue is how the motives of those with whom we disagree about the application of church teaching are put in the dock. In the Buckley case, the papacy’s outraged defenders could imagine only two options: either Buckley accepts the encyclical in its entirety, or he is an apostate. In Notre Dame’s invitation to Obama, the university’s critics see a similar betrayal on the part of the university’s administration. Thus the invitation to Obama has been damned as a symptom of the school’s craven desire for recognition and prestige, its slavish obedience to “elite” liberal opinion, and its perverse determination to betray its Catholic identity. Notre Dame’s critics are loath to credit the institution with any but the basest motives. For them, an invitation to a prochoice president necessarily constitutes a kind of apostasy, and thus becomes a loyalty test for all “faithful” Catholics.

Some of the objections to the invitation have been more reasonable. Some say that a Catholic university might legitimately invite President Obama to give a talk or to engage in a colloquy, but giving him an honorary degree is tantamount to an imprimatur. Yet university officials have made no secret of Notre Dame’s disagreement with the president about abortion and stem-cell research, and certainly the president and the public cannot be in doubt about the church’s opposition to his policies in those areas. Honorary degrees signify an institution’s admiration for the accomplishments of the recipient. They do not signify blanket moral approbation.

The church is not simply the prolife movement, and to the extent that every interaction between the church and our political system is held hostage to the demands of the most confrontational elements of that movement, the church’s social message, including its message about abortion, will be marginalized and ineffectual. The respect and honor owed the office of the president does not depend on any particular president’s merits (as Buckley often reminded his liberal critics). That respect is, among other things, a powerful affirmation of the willingness of Americans to live together peacefully, despite profound disagreement. Notre Dame’s invitation to President Obama is perhaps best understood in that light.

Published in the 2009-04-10 issue: 

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