Most of the commentary you've seen about President Barack Obama's appearance at the mid-May graduation of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., has missed the point.
A simplistic but common interpretation has been: Obama, 1; pro-lifers, 0.
There's no denying that the extremist rhetoric of a few misguided anti-abortion activists tarnished both the pro-life cause and the principled and reasonable stands taken by the local bishop, John M. D'Arcy, who decided not to attend the commencement, and Catholic scholar and lawyer Mary Ann Glendon, who turned down a prestigious award.
Unfairly but predictably, the loudmouths stole the media spotlight, leaving the reasonable objectors, including more than 70 bishops, to be tarnished by the media's willingness to lump all critics of Notre Dame's decision together.
In their blindness, the loudmouths also served a slow pitch over the plate to our oratorically gifted president. Can you imagine a better prop for a speech encouraging civil discourse on contentious issues like abortion than to be interrupted by hecklers?
In reality, Obama's prescription -- "Open hearts, open minds, fair-minded words" -- is what folks in the mainstream pro-life movement have long been committed to, and what they have asked political leaders to adopt on the abortion issue.
Even Obama's speech, while admirably echoing Catholic language, evoking the example of Catholic leaders and promising engagement on abortion, had several troubling holes. One example was his description suggesting that those who oppose embryonic stem-cell research oppose all stem-cell research. This is not the Catholic position and suggests a lack of fair-mindedness.
Another was his call to "honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause;" without pointing out that it was he who recently rescinded measures intended to protect the consciences of pro-life health care workers and hospitals. Or that his budget proposal would allow federal funds for abortions in Washington, D.C., contrary to the consciences of pro-life taxpayers. One can hope his words indicate an openness of heart and a willingness to change on this issue.
But most troubling was his description of America's abortion debate as ultimately "irreconcilable." This indicates acceptance of the status quo, and potentially an unwillingness to open his mind and truly engage pro-lifers on what they believe is the civil rights issue of our day. One can only pray that his praise of a former Notre Dame president for helping break the impasse in last century's civil rights struggle will one day awaken his awareness that the two issues bear much in common.
Ultimately, Obama's words must be matched by deeds. While we applaud his call for "common ground" with pro-lifers, his actions since assuming office have been to shrink that ground rather than expand it. In fact, in both word and deed on abortion, he's not looking much different than President Bill Clinton. And he's surrounded himself with many more aggressive proponents of abortion rights.
Pro-lifers would do well to grant the good faith and sincerity of the president, and can take heart that he, too, has seen the recent poll numbers showing that for the first time in a decade a majority of Americans self-identify as pro-life.
Notre Dame may have erred in honoring President Obama, but we can pray that he one day lives up to it.
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