A Cautious Man
April 30, 2009
Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility ...
... is the name of the Catholic Church in Lake Wobegon, Garrison Keillor's "hometown" of which he has spun many a tale. That phrase came to mind when thinking about the current kerfuffle involving the University of Notre Dame (i.e. "Our Lady"), President Obama, an honorary degree and a commencement address (fueled mostly by right-wing groups for political, not religious reasons). These are some random thoughts that I've read, which make sensible points. From an editorial in Commonweal Magazine:

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.

From a commentary with a lot of good points by the eminently sensible columnist (and Catholic) E.J. Dionne, who references the Commonweal editorial:

Declaring that “the church is not simply the prolife movement” is both true and essential. I understand that there are committed pro-lifers who really do believe that abortion is the most important issue, and who therefore cannot abide the invitation to the president. But the Catholic Church has a rich history of concern with issues related to social justice, peace and equality. It should not be defined solely by the politics of abortion.

Moreover, I cannot help but suspect that some of the opposition to Obama’s appearance at Notre Dame among Catholics comes from political conservatives and Republicans who are at least as motivated by their political views as by their views of church teaching. By the same token, many Catholics who support the invitation are no doubt also motivated by their political sympathies. It’s unfortunate that what might take the form of a straightforward political debate among Catholics is being couched as an attack on Notre Dame.

This also bothered Doug Kmiec, a staunch pro-lifer and a former official in both the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations who -- to the consternation of many of his friends -- endorsed Obama last year. “Some of the reaction to Obama is still post-election sour grapes,” Kmiec wrote in a thoughtful essay this week in Politico. “Obama netted 54 percent of the Catholic vote nationwide, including a sizable share in Notre Dame’s home state of Indiana.”

And finally (via the blog Catholic Sensibility, from my reading list over to the right), is this response by President Obama at his press conference last evening, to a question from Ed Henry of CNN (who apparently is still smarting over receiving this response when he asked the President why he waited to comment on the AIG bonuses: "Because I like to know what I'm talking about before I speak"):

:Q: Thank you, Mr. President. In a couple of weeks, you're going to be giving the commencement at Notre Dame. And, as you know, this has caused a lot of controversy among Catholics who are opposed to your position on abortion.

As a candidate, you vowed that one of the very things you wanted to do was sign the Freedom of Choice Act, which, as you know, would eliminate federal, state and local restrictions on abortion. And at one point in the campaign when asked about abortion and life, you said that it was above — quote, above my pay grade.

Now that you've been president for 100 days, obviously, your pay grade is a little higher than when you were a senator.

Do you still hope that Congress quickly sends you the Freedom of Choice Act so you can sign it?

OBAMA: You know, the — my view on — on abortion, I think, has been very consistent. I think abortion is a moral issue and an ethical issue.

I think that those who are pro-choice make a mistake when they — if they suggest — and I don't want to create straw men here, but I think there are some who suggest that this is simply an issue about women's freedom and that there's no other considerations. I think, look, this is an issue that people have to wrestle with and families and individual women have to wrestle with.

The reason I'm pro-choice is because I don't think women take that — that position casually. I think that they struggle with these decisions each and every day. And I think they are in a better position to make these decisions ultimately than members of Congress or a president of the United States, in consultation with their families, with their doctors, with their clergy.

So — so that has been my consistent position. The other thing that I said consistently during the campaign is I would like to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies that result in women feeling compelled to get an abortion, or at least considering getting an abortion, particularly if we can reduce the number of teen pregnancies, which has started to spike up again.

And so I've got a task force within the Domestic Policy Council in the West Wing of the White House that is working with groups both in the pro-choice camp and in the pro-life camp, to see if we can arrive at some consensus on that.

Now, the Freedom of Choice Act is not highest legislative priority. I believe that women should have the right to choose. But I think that the most important thing we can do to tamp down some of the anger surrounding this issue is to focus on those areas that we can agree on. And that's — that's where I'm going to focus.

Three things about the question. First, the premise of "a lot of controversy among Catholics" is based on the artificially inflated prominence of this issue, as noted above. Second, Mr. Henry is clueless if he really didn't know that Mr. Obama's "above my pay grade" remark was referencing the difference between being a theologian commenting on when life begins, and being a politician (not between a Senator and a President). And, third, Mr. Henry's question assumes that there was an actual Freedom of Choice Act currently out there, which would "eliminate federal, state and local restrictions on abortion" - but there isn't.

As for the response, that's the "let's find common ground" approach which people on each of the edges on this issue may not favor, but which seems to be the best way to deal with an issue on which so many Americans have so many different points of view.



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