The president inserts himself into a religious debate.
By George Weigel
May 18, 2009, 0:00 p.m.
Passionate debates over doctrine, identity, and the boundaries of “communion” have been a staple of the American religious landscape for centuries: Trinitarians vs. Unitarians in 19th-century New England; Modernists vs. Fundamentalists in early-20th-century Presbyterianism; Missouri Synod Lutherans vs. Wisconsin Synod Lutherans vs. Other Sorts of Lutherans down to today. Yet never in our history has a president of the United States, in the exercise of his public office, intervened in such disputes in order to secure a political advantage.
Until yesterday, at the University of Notre Dame.
The principal themes of President Obama’s Notre Dame commencement address were entirely predictable; indeed, in some offices I know, betting pools were forming last week on how many of the Catholic Left hot buttons Obama would hit. In the event, he hit for the cycle several times over, mentioning “common ground”; tolerance and reconciliation amid diversity; Father Hesburgh; respect for those with whose moral judgments we disagree; problem-solving over ideology; Father Hesburgh; saving God’s creation from climate change; pulling together; Father Hesburgh; open hearts; open minds; fair-minded words; Father Hesburgh. None of this was surprising, and most of it was said with the president’s usual smooth eloquence.
What was surprising, and ought to be disturbing to anyone who cares about religious freedom in these United States, was the president’s decision to insert himself into the ongoing Catholic debate over the boundaries of Catholic identity and the applicability of settled Catholic conviction in the public square. Obama did this by suggesting, not altogether subtly, who the real Catholics in America are. The real Catholics, you see, are those like the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who are “congenial and gentle” in persuasion, men and women who are “always trying to bring people together,” Catholics who are “always trying to find the common ground.” The fact that Cardinal Bernardin’s undoubted geniality and gentility in bringing people together to find the common ground invariably ended with a “consensus” that matched the liberal or progressive position of the moment went unremarked — because, for a good postmodern liberal like President Obama, that progressive “consensus” is so self-evidently true that one can afford to be generous in acknowledging that others, less enlightened but arguably sincere, have different views.
Cardinal Bernardin gave a moving and powerful testimony to Christian faith in his gallant response to the cancer that finally killed him. Prior to that last, great witness, however, the late archbishop of Chicago was best known publicly for his advocacy of a “consistent ethic of life,” in which the abortion issue was linked to the abolition of capital punishment and nuclear arms control. And whatever Bernardin’s intentions in formulating what came to be known popularly as the “seamless garment” approach to public policy, the net effect of the consistent ethic of life was to validate politically the intellectual mischief of Mario Cuomo’s notorious 1984 Notre Dame speech and to give two generations of Catholic politicians a virtual pass on the abortion question by allowing them to argue that, hey, I’m batting .667 on the consistent ethic of life.
The U.S. bishops abandoned the “seamless garment” metaphor in 1998, substituting the image of the “foundations of the house of freedom” to explain the priority to be given the life issues in the Church’s address to public policy — and in the consciences of Catholic politicians. The foundations of the house of freedom, the bishops argued, are the moral truths about the human person that we can know by reason. Those truths are embodied in law in what we call civil rights. Thus, the life issues are the great civil-rights issues of the moment. This powerful argument did not, however, sit well with Catholics comfortable with the Cuomo Compromise (“I’m personally opposed, but I can’t impose my views on a pluralistic society”), for these good liberals and progressives had long prided themselves on being — like Father Hesburgh — champions of civil rights.
So the “seamless garment” went underground for a decade, only to be dusted off by Douglas Kmiec and others in the 2008 campaign; there, a variant form of the consistent ethic was used to argue that Barack Obama was the real pro-life candidate on offer. As casuistry, this was risible. But it worked well enough that Catholic Obama-supporters on the Notre Dame board saw their chances and took ’em, arranging for the president to come to Notre Dame to complete the seamless garment’s dust-off and give it a new lease on life by presenting the late Cardinal Bernardin — “a kind and good man . . . a saintly man” — as the very model of a real Catholic in America. Not the kind of Catholic who would ever criticize Notre Dame for bestowing an honorary doctorate of laws on a man determined to enshrine in law what the Catholic Church regards as a fundamental injustice. Not the kind of man who would suggest that, with the life issues, we’re living through the moral equivalent of the Lincoln/Douglas debates, with Barack Obama unhappily choosing to play the role of Stephen A. Douglas. Not a man, in other words, like Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, Cardinal Bernardin’s successor, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and one of the most articulate critics of Notre Dame’s decision to honor a president who manifestly does not share what Notre Dame claims is its institutional commitment to the Church’s defense of life.
Whether or not President Obama knew precisely what he was doing — and I’m inclined to think that this politically savvy White House and its allies among Catholic progressive intellectuals knew exactly what they were doing — is irrelevant. In order to secure the political advantage Obama had gained among Catholic voters last November, the president of the United States decided that he would define what it means to be a real Catholic in 21st-century America — not the bishop of Fort Wayne–South Bend, who in sorrow declined to attend Notre Dame’s commencement; not the 80-some bishops who publicly criticized Notre Dame’s decision to invite the president to receive an honorary degree; not the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which explicitly and unambiguously instructed Catholic institutions not to do what Notre Dame did. He, President Obama, would settle the decades-long intra-Catholic culture war in favor of one faction — the faction that had supported his candidacy and that had spent the first months of his administration defending his policies.
At the Seventh Provincial Council of Baltimore in 1849, the U.S. bishops petitioned the Holy See to grant the archbishop of Baltimore the title of Primate of the Catholic Church in the United States (as, for example, the archbishops of Québec City and Mexico City are the “Primates” of their respective countries). The Holy See declined and, ever since, the archbishops of Baltimore have had to settle for being the ordinaries of the “premier” see in American Catholicism. Barack Obama at Notre Dame was not so modest. Rather like Napoleon taking the diadem out of the hands of Pope Pius VII and crowning himself emperor, President Obama has, wittingly or not, declared himself the Primate of American Catholicism.
What the bishops of the United States have to say about this usurpation of their authority will be very interesting to see. Whether Obama’s Catholic acolytes will recognize a genuine threat to religious freedom in what they are already celebrating as their Notre Dame victory over the pro-life yahoos and reactionaries will also be instructive.
— George Weigel is distinguished senior fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.