ND controversy as flashpoint for broader debate

After the word went out that Archbishop Raymond Burke would be the speaker at this year's National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, set for May 8 in Washington (after this paper went to press), one obvious question was what, if anything, he'd say about Randall Terry.

Terry, a Catholic convert and veteran pro-life activist, made a splash in March by treating a Washington news conference to a taped interview with Archbishop Burke in which he spoke critically of American bishops who didn't deny Communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians.

The archbishop, who now heads a Vatican court, received national attention as archbishop of St. Louis for taking that tough stand on that issue. But after Terry's news conference, he complained that he hadn't expected public release of his interview and apologized to his brother bishops.

The incident was symptomatic of a larger phenomenon. In recent months, civility between and among Catholics over aspects of the abortion issue has sharply deteriorated. A common thread in much of this is disagreement on how to respond to President Barack Obama and his pro-abortion agenda.

In mid-April, Terry struck again. He denounced Bishop John M. D'Arcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., for discouraging Catholics from participating in demonstrations Terry was planning to protest the University of Notre Dame's invitation to Obama to receive an honorary degree and speak at its May 17 commencement.

The invitation currently is a cause célèbre among Catholics, with more than 40 bishops making statements criticizing the university and more than 300,000 people signing a petition of protest.

Bishop D'Arcy is among the bishops who've criticized Notre Dame. Yet Terry accused him of "urging the faithful to abandon the babies and thereby abandon Christ" -- a remark that Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, called "arrogance on stilts."

'Most polarizing'

Although Terry's words were unusually harsh, they weren't an isolated occurrence. Signs of a souring in public discourse among Catholics are numerous.

In mid-April, for instance, law professor and Obama supporter Douglas Kmiec said Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, president of the U.S. bishops' conference, and Bishop D'Arcy violated the spirit of the Gospel. He said their criticism of Notre Dame's decision was "hard to reconcile with the image of Christ" who welcomed "even 'sinners and tax collectors.'"

During last year's campaign, Kmiec, a Catholic sometimes mentioned as a possible Obama pick for ambassador to the Vatican, repeatedly urged Catholics to back Obama and claimed to see "common ground" on abortion between the Church and the candidate.

Obama, for his part, said that, while making sure as president that abortion remained legal and available, he would seek a reduction in the number of abortions.

Since becoming president, however, he has restored U.S. funding for groups that perform and promote abortions overseas, expanded federal support for stem-cell experiments that involve destroying human embryos, set in motion the abolition of Bush administration rules providing conscience protection for hospitals and medical personnel who object to performing abortions, and chosen for his administration people with strong records of abortion advocacy, including Catholic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, nominated to be Secretary of Health and Human Services.

Now pro-lifers are waiting nervously to see how far the administration will go in attempting to mandate abortion under its upcoming health care reform.

Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, a speechwriter in the White House of former President George W. Bush, calls Obama "the most polarizing new president of recent times."

Gerson cited Pew Research Center data showing that the gap between Republican and Democratic approval ratings for Bush early in his first term was 51 percent while for Obama it's 61 percent. Obama was "supposed to be the antidote to the poison of partisanship," he wrote, but so far has turned out to divide people even more than predecessors Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Bush.

What to do?

Writing in the National Catholic Reporter, former Vatican ambassador Thomas Melady called for Catholics to "engage" with the Obama administration. But engagement is a two-way street, and Obama has given few signs that he's interested in engaging with the Church. On March 17 he and Cardinal George had a 30-minute meeting. Otherwise the president has had no known contact with anyone officially qualified to speak for the Church.

'Tone deafness'

The president's approval ratings remain high, and his support is strong among Catholics, 54 percent of whom voted for him in November. Yet even some Obama-friendly Catholics appear to be growing nervous about the present situation.

Writing in NCRonline, journalist Michael Sean Winters accused the administration of "tone deafness" on the life issues and warned that Obama could lose the backing of Catholic swing voters who did so much to propel him into the White House.

Despite the media attention they receive, Randall Terry's in-your-face doings are largely a sideshow. Growing tensions between the Obama administration and the Catholic Church, as well as among Catholics themselves, definitely are not.

American Catholics are sharply divided in their view of Obama and increasingly at odds with one another on his account. The president retains much Catholic support, but he also is walking a tightrope, not only on abortion but on issues from the economy to Iran that could cause him serious trouble before long. The stakes in this ongoing drama are extraordinarily high -- for Obama, for the country, and for the Church.

Ripple effect

Three week's before the University of Notre Dame's May 17 commencement, the intended recipient of one of its oldest and most prestigious annual awards announced she decided to decline the honor and not attend the commencement.

Mary Ann Glendon, Harvard law professor and former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, was to have received the Laetare Medal.

But in a letter, posted on the website of First Things, to Notre Dame's president, Glendon said the university's decision to honor President Barack Obama with a degree at the ceremony had changed her mind:

First, "I am at a loss to understand why a Catholic university should disrespect" the U.S. bishops' 2004 request not to honor public figures at odds with the Church on basic moral issues.

Second, in the firestorm that ensued after the announcement of President Obama's invitation, Notre Dame sought to calm critics by pointing to Glendon as a counterweight on life issues.

Not so fast, Glendon said in her letter. "A commencement ... is supposed to be a joyous day for the graduates and their families. It is not the right place, nor is a brief acceptance speech the right vehicle, for engagement with the very serious problems raised by Notre Dame's decision -- in disregard of the settled position of the U.S. bishops -- to honor a prominent and uncompromising opponent of the Church's position on issues involving fundamental principles of justice."

Third, Glendon pointed to reports of other universities honoring abortion-rights figures and said "Notre Dame's example could have an unfortunate ripple effect."

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.