…a topic that is eating up the Catholic forums. As a recent convert (2006) to the Catholic Church and motivated in no way by political or cultural concerns, it came as somewhat of a surprise to see the range of political views that currently exist in the Catholic Church.
In fact my first attempts to locate an RCIA program proved instructive as the first Church I went to in Boston informed me that their Church tended to be more “liberal” in outlook and that I would probably prefer to attend the Church in my neighborhood parish. I admit to looking like a right wing extremist but was quite frankly surprised (and a little put-off) by the RCIA director’s overt political approach to what I thought was going to be a spiritual or soulful activity (locating a Church to join). Well this is three years later and I’ve come to see how messy things really are. Happily it in no way affects my faith or commitment to my Church.
Joseph Bottum is an editor at First Things and the Books & Arts editor of The Weekly Standard. A native of South Dakota, he is a graduate of Georgetown University, with a Ph.D. in philosophy from Boston College. His essays, reviews, and poetry have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic Monthly, Nineteenth-Century Literature, First Things, Commentary, National Review, Philosophy & Literature, and elsewhere. He is a host of Book Talk, a nationally syndicated radio program. This is a selection from a spot on commentary on the Obama/ND dust up:
“The role of culture — American Catholic culture, in particular — is what Fr. Jenkins at Notre Dame, and John DeGioia at Georgetown, and many other presidents of Catholic colleges seem not to understand. Indeed, their lack of Catholic culture is what makes them appear so un-Catholic to the people they antagonize, and it is what so befuddles these college presidents when the charge is made. They know 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 distant world, attenuated and alone. Opposition to abortion doesn’t belong at the absolute center of Catholic theology. It doesn’t belong at the perfect center of Catholic faith. It exists, however, at the center of Catholic culture in this country. Yes, that culture is thinner than many that Catholics have known before, and yes, it seems in some ways an unpromising foundation for establishing a broad Catholic identity. For that matter, the pro-life core has only in the past twenty years begun to spread to the more distant reaches of the Church in America.
Still, opposition to abortion is hard and real, the signpost at the intersection of Catholicism and American public life. And those who — by inclination, or politics, or class distinction — 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 antagonism must derive from politics or the class envy of their lesser-educated social inferiors. But it doesn’t. It derives from the sense of the faithful that abortion is important. It derives from the feeling of Catholics that, however far they themselves may have wandered, the Church ought to stand for something in public life — and that something is opposition to abortion.
They do not necessarily have bad theology — although the bishops have argued that they do — when they equate the life issues with other concerns. They do not have bad faith just because they see the war and capital punishment as matters of equal weight with the million babies killed every year in this country by abortion. But they lack the cultural marker that would make them distinctively Catholic in the minds of other Catholics. Abortion is not the only life issue, but it is the one that bears most directly on the lives of ordinary Catholics as they fight against the current to preserve family life. And until Catholic universities get this, they will not be Catholic — in a very real, existentially important sense.
What’s more, they will not be politically effective. Notre Dame and President Obama created the present situation by attempting to use each other in the normal political way, but Notre Dame has gained nothing from the exercise. If anything, Notre Dame has lost ground. What political capital has it earned with the White House from the embarrassment of Mary Ann Glendon’s withdrawal and the open sniping of the bishops and the protesters camped outside the college gates? Nothing that will do the school any good.
From the White House, the situation looks different. John Kerry managed only 47 percent of the Catholic vote in 2004. Barack Obama brought home much more in 2008, and the Democratic party wants to keep those hard-gained votes. The bad economy may have turned some Catholics against the Republicans, but it hasn’t necessarily bound Catholics back to the Democrats. The sticking point remains abortion: Catholics are against it, Democrats are for it, and nothing on either side looks likely to budge. Enter the Catholic universities and colleges. In recent years, the bishops have proved generally unwilling to downplay the life issues, and, as a result, they have been systematically shut out by the Obama administration and the new Congress. No one in power in Washington feels the need to give in to the bishops about anything — or to compromise with the bishops, or even to consult the bishops. Much as Republicans over the past eight years never bothered with the National Organization for Women, considering it a wholly owned subsidiary of the Democratic party, so the Democrats now do not bother much with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which they imagine mostly as a partisan opponent on the life issues and a sideshow on everything else.
Still, the Democrats need to keep their Catholic voters. They need Catholic cover — and they are seeking it among the Catholic schools: Georgetown and Xavier and Sacred Heart and, yes, Notre Dame. The people at these institutions do not all approve of legalized abortion; some do, some don’t, and the percentages vary, with Georgetown probably high toward approval and Notre Dame certainly high toward disapproval. But, in general, the Catholic colleges have proved themselves willing to set aside the question of abortion when giving honors to politicians they otherwise support, while the bishops have gradually settled on refusing to grant those honors.
As the Democrats try what all political parties try — to turn a single electoral victory into a long-lasting majority — the lures they offer the Catholic colleges will grow larger and larger. Politics, taken all by itself, offers some explanation for how President Obama’s honorary law degree from Notre Dame grew to become the central scene of a power struggle between the bishops and the Catholic colleges.”
I imagine Fr. Jenkins has scored all kinds of federal funding for his institution over the next few years – would love to read a follow-up article that follows the money on these things. The cover he has offered Obama is huge but how this plays out to the Catholic base is the real issue here. I agree with Bottum that ND has gained nothing here and when the American electorate wakes up to how cynically the Pelosi/Reid/Democratic Party/White House has played the country’s economic problems to their own advantage, the mood for a third party will dramatically escalate. These are serious times we are in and in need of a serious political response. I think Americans will come up with one.