Does Barack Obama have a Catholic problem or do American Catholics have an Obama problem? Or both?
Either way, Obama's relationship with the Catholic Church remains clouded and tense following the controversy over the University of Notre Dame's decision to give him an honorary degree and have him as its commencement speaker.
But one thing is clear: American Catholics are deeply divided in their responses to this aggressively pro-choice president. Whether intentional or not, Obama's knack for sharpening divisions among Catholics has become a notable feature of his presidency. In the Notre Dame incident, he was abetted, astonishingly, by a major Catholic university.
Obama's May 17 remarks at Notre Dame evoked typically divided reactions ranging from disgust to adulation. Aiming to strike a selectively conciliatory note, the president praised liberal churchmen like retired Notre Dame president Holy Cross Father Theodore Hesburgh and the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago. As for the nearly 80 bishops who criticized the university for inviting him, his silence was an implied rebuke.
On abortion, there was no backing away from the commitment to keep abortion legal and easily available. Instead, like other pro-choice politicians anxious to tamp down controversy, Obama expressed generalized support for cutting down on the number of abortions and hope for unspecified "compromise" on the issue. But it's hard to imagine a viable compromise between holding that abortion is morally acceptable and holding that it's not.
As Obama himself acknowledged, "at some level the views of the two camps are irreconcilable." The likely result is that his speech was persuasive to those who already supported him and further alienated those who did not.
Opinion polls before the Notre Dame affair showed a sharp split among American Catholics where this president is concerned.
The biggest poll was last November's election in which Obama received 53 percent of the votes of Catholics. During his first 100 days in office moreover, his job approval figure among Catholics averaged 67 percent, slightly higher than the overall figure of 63 percent and a typical showing for presidents early in their first terms.
But the picture is different when Catholics are divided into those who attend Mass weekly and those who don't.
Among weekly Massgoers, support for Obama last November was 49 percent, compared with 58 percent among those who go to Mass less often or not at all. And among "white non-Hispanic Catholics" the 100-day approval figure was 43 percent for the first group and 63 percent for the second.
Catholic views on the Notre Dame flap form a similar pattern. Here, 50 percent of Catholics overall said the university did the right thing in inviting Obama, with the figure rising to 56 percent among white non-Hispanics who don't attend weekly Mass. Among the weekly Massgoers, however, approval fell to 37 percent.
These are Pew Research Center figures. Another pollster -- Rasmussen -- said Catholics split 60 percent to 25 percent in holding that Notre Dame shouldn't have given Obama a degree. The Rasmussen organization did not link its findings to Mass attendance.
Nobody has taken a poll of bishops, but here the sheer numbers are striking. Close to 80 members of the hierarchy made public statements and almost all were critical of Notre Dame. Many complained that the university violated a 2004 policy statement in which the bishops called on Catholic institutions not to honor supporters of abortion or other practices in flagrant conflict with Church teaching.
Observers of the American hierarchy consider it an indicator of exceptionally intense concern for so many bishops to speak out. Many clearly wanted to show solidarity with Bishop John D'Arcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend, whose authority Notre Dame president Holy Cross Father John Jenkins treated with contempt.
But even though almost 80 active bishops spoke, nearly 200 did not. Some are auxiliaries who leave making statements to their ordinaries. Others presumably chose not to make this their fight.
Among Catholics at large the implications of Obama's pro-abortion commitments and other policies appear not yet to have sunk in universally.
So far he has authorized federal funding for overseas abortion, greatly expanded government support of stem-cell research that involves killing human embryos, moved to reverse Bush administration conscience clause protections for hospitals and medical personnel, and named abortion advocates to high positions in his administration.
The president's budget calls for returning tax-paid abortions to the District of Columbia and ending federal support for abstinence education. His choice to replace retiring Justice David Souter on the Supreme Court will almost certainly be someone who supports legal abortion. Many fear the administration's version of government health insurance will mandate abortion coverage in some form.
Snapshots from Notre Dame's commencement
President Barack Obama
To thunderous applause from some 3,000 University of Notre Dame graduates and their families -- and occasional brief interruptions from several lone hecklers -- President Barack Obama delivered the commencement speech at America's most iconic Catholic university May 17. Here are some key quotes and lines that drew the most applause:
That's when we begin to say, "Maybe we won't agree on abortion, but we can still agree that this is a heart-wrenching decision, not made casually, for any woman to make, with both moral and spiritual dimensions.
"So let's work together [applause] to reduce the number of women seeking abortions by reducing unintended pregnancies, and making adoption more available [applause] and providing care and support for women who do carry their child to term. [applause] Let's honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded in clear ethics and sound science, as well as respect for the equality of women." [applause]
Understand -- I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. No matter how much we may want to fudge it -- indeed, while we know that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory -- the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable. Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature.
Holy Cross Father John Jenkins
The president was introduced by Notre Dame president Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, who had come under considerable pressure for the invitation. The priest received two standing ovations at the end of the ceremony for, as the provost put it, his "courage" and "spirit." From his introductory speech:
President Obama has come to Notre Dame, though he knows well that we are fully supportive of Church teaching on the sanctity of life [applause] and we oppose his policies on abortion and embryonic stem-cell research.
Others might have avoided this venue for that reason. But President Obama is not someone who stops talking to those who differ from him.
Mr. President: This is a principle we share. [applause]
Judge John T. Noonan
Notre Dame had originally announced it would award its prestigious Laetare Medal to Harvard Law professor Mary Ann Glendon, but she declined it out of concern that the university would use her presence as a foil against critics of the Obama choice. So instead, the university scheduled a former Laetare Medal winner, Judge John T. Noonan, to deliver a speech "in the spirit" of the medal. From his address:
One friend is not here today, whose absence I regret. By a lonely, courageous and conscientious choice she declined the honor she deserved. I respect her decision. [applause] At the same time, I am here to confirm that all consciences are not the same; that we can recognize great goodness in our nation's president without defending all of his multitudinous decisions; and that we can rejoice together on this wholly happy occasion.
Bishop John M. D'Arcy
Bishop John M. D'Arcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend was informed of the commencement speaker decision after President Obama had accepted the invitation. Noting that the invite was a violation of a 2004 U.S. bishops' policy, he announced he would not attend this year's commencement.
It would be one thing to bring the president here for a discussion on health care or immigration, and no person of goodwill could rightly oppose this. We have here, however, the granting of an honorary degree of law to someone whose activities both as president and previously have been altogether supportive of laws against the dignity of the human person yet to be born. ...
I pledge to work with Father Jenkins and all at Notre Dame to heal the terrible breach, which has taken place between Notre Dame and the Church. It cannot be allowed to continue.
I ask all to pray that this healing will take place in a way that is substantial and true, and not illusory. Notre Dame and Father Jenkins must do their part if this healing is to take place. I will do my part. -- April 21 statement
I urge all Catholics and others of good will to stay away from unseemly and unhelpful demonstrations against our nation's president or Notre Dame or Father John I. Jenkins, CSC. ...
Let us all work toward a peaceful graduation experience for the class of 2009 at our beloved Notre Dame. -- April 10 statement. The bishop did preside at the Baccalaureate Mass the day before the commencement and, in a last-minute decision, participated in a prayer rally on campus that included about 30 graduates who were boycotting the commencement.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.