By Greg Erlandson
In the wake of the spring brouhaha at the University of Notre Dame over the honors paid to President Barack Obama, the debate within the Catholic community continues to reverberate.
The university leadership no doubt considered the presidential visit a success, but now piously wishes that everyone could just move on and leave it to counting its behemoth endowment in peace.
Some bishops may share this wish, perhaps reading the Vatican tea leaves and figuring there was not a lot of support even there for engaging in public battle with a U.S. president who is more popular with Italians than the billionaire Lothario who heads their own government.
But the debate continues, and for good reason. It is a tangle of issues that are particularly divisive for the Catholic community in America. The issues revolve around Catholic identity, the role of authority and, always, abortion and its place in the great social debates of our day.
In terms of Catholic identity, the debate inflamed a growing concern that what it means to say one is Catholic is no longer universally understood the same way.
For some, Catholic identity is almost an ethnic characteristic, one that comes without a great many specific requirements of belief. Its teachings, often regarding certain justice issues, continue to be revered, but as a way of life, a system of teachings that describe our core beliefs, it no longer holds much sway. In many ways, this describes the attitude -- at best -- of the once large Catholic populations in Western Europe. It may increasingly describe many American Catholics as well. This in turn raises the question of the role of the Catholic university in promoting Catholic identity and self-understanding among the sons and daughters we entrust to it.
This in turn leads to a debate about authority. While the collective body of bishops may be reluctant to engage in a duel with the Catholic universities, Notre Dame's refusal to dialogue with its own bishop even as it was expressing a willingness to dialogue with the president has dismayed and anger many individual bishops.
With some Catholic commentators supportive of Notre Dame, suggesting that the bishops are irrelevant to both Obama and their own flocks, the bishops are aware that the Notre Dame controversy has not only called into question the university's leadership, but also their own.
Finally, there is the ever-present debate over abortion. Obama's call for respect and civility in the abortion debate was welcomed by many, particularly after some of the more irresponsible antics of anti-Obama demonstrators, as well as the murder of abortionist George Tiller. But as Obama himself recognized, this does not make the debate go away. The differences, he acknowledged, may be irreconcilable, particularly since Catholics believe that abortion is the taking of a life.
Because the differences are profound, however, all those who do believe abortion is a taking of a life are duty bound to continue to work for a pro-life political solution. Polling suggests that more and more Americans oppose abortion, at least in concept if not in fact, but the struggle will continue for many years, as has been the case with all the great human rights battles. Perceived in this light, activities that help pregnant women and their children and families are critical, and such efforts continue to flourish. But equally important is the need for peaceful demonstrations and marches, for political action committees, for ongoing legislative efforts to curb abortion, for the tutelage of the next generation of pro-life Catholics, and for prohibitions on activities that would appear to give honors and awards to abortion supporters.
It isn't a matter of either-or, but of both. All of this can be done with civility, but if only half of it is done, if we only focus on politics or we only focus on helping those in need, then we will have handicapped our own efforts to save lives and souls.
Greg Erlandson is president and publisher of OSV.