The Magazine

God and Obama at Notre Dame

The clash between Catholic culture and Catholic colleges.

May 18, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 33 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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And maybe even without going beyond the life issues: Two months before Election Day, Kmiec published Can a Catholic Support Him? Asking the Big Questions about Barack Obama--a book in which he insisted that Obama, in the secret places of his heart, is actually against abortion, and, anyway, unlike the evil John McCain, he wants to help the poor, and when the poor aren't poor anymore, they'll stop having abortions, so the pro-choice Obama is more objectively pro-life than any pro-life Republican could possibly be.

Unsurprisingly, Douglas Kmiec is not happy with the protesters at Notre Dame: "Jesus' method was one of inclusion, teaching with generosity, forgiveness, and truth--not snubbing those in high office," he recently observed, forgetting, perhaps, Jesus' encounter with that high-officeholder Pontius Pilate. And Obama's other Catholic admirers are equally irate. The left-leaning Jesuit magazine America, for instance, harrumphed its support of "Catholic intellectuals who defend the richer, subtly nuanced, broad-tent Catholic tradition."

Even some conservatives, Obama's natural opponents, took the school's side and denounced Mary Ann Glendon for refusing this year's Laetare Medal, Notre Dame's annual honor for service to the Church and society. A Harvard law professor, author of the widely cited Rights Talk, and the former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, Glendon is well known for her basic niceness and her well-mannered willingness to join attempts at coalition building between left and right.

Her decision was no personal caprice. Back in 2004, the American bishops reached a compromise between their own left and right contingents and issued a carefully worded document called "Catholics in Political Life." "Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles," the bishops agreed [emphasis in the original]. "[Such people] should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions." In part, this explains why, at the present moment, not a single American bishop is supporting Notre Dame in its clash with the bishop of South Bend, John D'Arcy--and bishops from 68 of the 195 American dioceses have publicly chastised the school. What was the point of all that careful work by the bishops if Catholic institutions are simply going to ignore it?

Anyway, Glendon had first accepted the invitation to receive the medal back in December. In March came the announcement of Obama's honorary degree, and then the school's lashing out at critics, and then the leaking of Notre Dame's official talking points, which instructed the university's spokesmen to reply to complaints: "President Obama won't be doing all the talking. Mary Ann Glendon, the former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, will be speaking as the recipient of the Laetare Medal." Glendon decided she didn't much like being a makeweight, so she wrote on April 27 to decline the medal, saying that Notre Dame's refusal even to speak with its local bishop threatened a "ripple effect" that could lead "other Catholic schools . . . to disregard the bishops' guidelines." The university's president, Fr. John Jenkins, had ratcheted the situation up, and up, and up, until even the gracious Mary Ann Glendon was forced to choose between the bishops and Notre Dame. What made them imagine she could possibly choose Notre Dame?

That wasn't how some saw it, of course. The comments about Glendon left, for example, on the libertarian law professors' blog The Volokh Conspiracy are well worth reading: a hilariously incoherent recital of a hundred years' worth of anti-Catholic tropes--mashed together with the thin-skinned reaction of Obama's supporters to any criticism of their leader and spiced with a conservative complaint that Glendon is childishly picking up her ball and going home, retreating into irrelevance instead of fighting the good fight.

What all these critics of Glendon share is a sense that Catholic unhappiness with Notre Dame must be about politics. "There is a political game going on here, and part of that is that you demonize the people who disagree with you, you question their integrity, you challenge their character, and you brand these people as moral poison," Fr. Kenneth Himes, chairman of the theology department at Boston College, complained to the Boston Globe. As James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal noted, this was the same Fr. Himes who in 2006 wrote the faculty a letter objecting to an honorary degree for Condoleezza Rice--a letter that read, "On the levels of both moral principle and practical moral judgment, Secretary Rice's approach to international affairs is in fundamental conflict with Boston College's commitment to the values of the Catholic and Jesuit traditions and is inconsistent with the humanistic values that inspire the university's work."