On Sunday, Barack Obama became the first resolutely pro-choice president of the United States to deliver a commencement address at the nation's most resonantly Roman Catholic university. There were pro-life protests on the edge of the University of Notre Dame campus and thunderous applause from the graduating students. For the first time in the university's history, no American bishop was in attendance. So what was accomplished? And what should we take away?
Those who watched the entire graduation ceremony, either in person or on CNN, witnessed a demonstration of courtesy, mutual respect and civil discourse rarely seen in this abject season of ideological passion and venomous ill will. If there was a common theme to the day's speeches it was this: Thou Shall Not Demonize.
I hope the bishops and other Catholics who judged the president morally unworthy of an honorary degree from Notre Dame—and the university unfaithful to bestow it—took careful notes.
It required a measure of courage for Obama to accept the invitation from Notre Dame, knowing that he would have to acknowledge—at a time when he is seeking support for solving a global economic crisis and a worsening war in Afghanistan—differences on fundamental moral issues between himself and most of the 75 million Catholics in this country. It took considerably more courage for Notre Dame's president, Father John Jenkins, to invite Obama in the first place—and then to stand by his decision despite protests from the single-issue pro-life factions, withdrawals of alumni bequests, a steady stream of abusive e-mails to his office and public criticism from a quarter of the American Catholic hierarchy.
In his eloquent welcoming of the president, Father Jenkins emphasized that the university is "fully supportive of church teaching on the sanctity of human life, and we oppose his policies on abortion and embryonic stem-cell research." But he also observed that President Obama is not someone who stops talking to those who differ with him," adding, "This is a principle we share."
In his own address, President Obama acknowledged that while the views of most Americans are on the subject of abortion "are complex and contradictory, the fact is that at some level, the views of the [pro-life and pro-choice] camps are irreconcilable." But as each side presses its case, he pleaded, "surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature."
The president then went on to call for a common effort to reduce the number of women seeking abortions by "reducing unintended pregnancies and making adoption more available and providing care and support for women who do carry their child to term." In so saying, Obama merely repeated longtime positions of the Democratic Party, and I, as a pro-life Catholic and graduate of Notre Dame was disappointed that he offered nothing more concrete.
For example, he could have signaled his support for the Pregnant Women Support Act, a common-ground initiative that Democrats for Life have introduced in the House and Senate, which has the endorsement of the Catholic bishops Pro-Life Committee.
He might have reassured the Catholic community, beyond a passing phrase, that new regulations governing health-care providers will contain strong clauses protecting the consciences of doctors and nurses who find abortion evil. American Catholics, after all, operate the largest private-hospital system in the world.
As a political gesture, he might have announced a White House liaison to American Catholics. A hundred days into his presidency, there is no one in that post.
Above all, he could have clarified his stand on the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA), a bill that would remove all state and local restrictions on abortion. As a candidate, Obama declared his support for FOCA; since then he has said that it is no longer high on his list of legislative priorities.
To be fair, the president was intent on speaking directly to the day's graduates. His call to public service connected with younger Catholics who see in him a president whose goals resonate with many of the church's traditions of social justice. Still, the question persists: after all the exemplary good will, after all the "fair-minded words," as the president called them, what did Notre Dame achieve by honoring of Obama?
For one thing, the university validated the view that American Catholics are not inclined to be single-issue voters; like other Americans, they recognize that this president confronts many pressing problems that concern them as citizens. For another, it demonstrated that Catholic universities do not lose their religious identity—rather, they enhance it—by respectfully engaging those who differ from Catholic teachings.
Finally, the frank words of Father Jenkins, not to mention the weeks of turmoil on and off the campus, should serve to alert the president and his White House staff that they have work to do in reassuring American Catholics that their views are taken seriously. In 2004, the majority of Catholic voters refused to support one of their own, John Kerry, largely because of his wobbly pro-choice positions. Exit polls last November showed that Catholics supported Obama despite his.
The message of Notre Dame is that thoughtful Catholics wish this president well. They will work with him if he will work with them. The courtesies of the president's day at Notre Dame were a reassuring start. They seemed to signal a willingness to solidify common ground against intractable partisans on the ideological left and right. Will the center hold? Much depends, I think, on whom President Obama nominates to replace Judge David Souter on the Supreme Court. And in the longer run, where the funding of abortion fits in with the president's promised health-care reform.