Monday morning: Quarterbacking the Irish

ND President Fr. John Jenkins and President Barack Obama arrive at Notre Dame commencement: Photo by Gerald Herbert/AP

I've posted ten times on the Notre Dame-Obama situation and this afternoon, after our parish May Procession, I sat down to watch the proceedings on the platform in South Bend. Here are some Monday morning thoughts...

• The blogosphere has been red-hot on this topic for over a month. Much of the discourse has exceeded what I judge to be the boundaries of civil conversation. What are and will be the terms of discourse as this conversation continues and what language will best advance the cause the Church espouses?

• Some of my readers have written to me off-blog with concerns that find a good summation in the May 11 editorial in America. While I think the editors paint a rosier-than-real picture of the Vatican's stance on some questions, the substance of their essay deserves a careful reading. The editorial raises questions about the possibility and danger of a sectarian Catholicism in the U.S. That's a real question and the furor surrounding Notre Dame's action here brings it into sharp relief. Is sectarianism a threat to the Catholic Church in the US? Is it already our problem?

• I listened with what I hoped to be an open mind to the president's speech. While many will charge that the university was co-opted in the process, Obama's speech was masterful in many ways. I had thought he wouldn't touch the issue of abortion but he did and he did so as a statesman would. It's unfortunate that Obama got to speak of dialogue in a situation in which there was no opportunity for it. It will be interesting to see if some will believe that dialogue occurred here.

Here's a snip from the monologue:
So let us work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions, let's reduce unintended pregnancies. Let's make adoption more available. Let's provide care and support for women who do carry their children to term. 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 not only in sound science, but also in clear ethics, as well as respect for the equality of women." Those are things we can do.

Now, understand — understand, Class of 2009, I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. Because 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.
I'm not easily persuaded by the "reduce the number..." language but any reduction is always to be perceived as an advance. Will and how will the Church work to support efforts to reduce the numbers here? How will we avoid the problems already incurred by the all-or-nothing approach?

• Some pundits are asserting that the Bishops' Conference should/must/will take Notre Dame to the woodshed and mete out some punishment for having invited Obama to the party yesterday. I'm not savvy enough about the USCCB to know if something like that will happen - or enjoy any level of success if it does. And that brings me to ask what we believe success is here. Given the microphone in South Bend, Obama has clearly stated what he thinks success will look like here. How will the Church judge success on these issues in this pluralistic society? How will we negotiate that success?

• Thousands in the ACC at Notre Dame interrupted Obama's speech with applause - many times. Their level of acceptance and support was palpable. Those applauding were parents who have spent over $200,000 for a Notre Dame education and students who are graduates of what many consider the top shelf of Catholic education in the US. They were cheering a president whom Catholics supported over McCain 54% vs. 45%. Given these political parameters, what strategy will best serve the mission of the Catholic position and its episcopacy in the years ahead?

• Although I believe the Obama invitation was a mistake, I don't believe that this event undercuts 160+ years of Notre Dame's Catholic history or topples a tradition deeply rooted in faith. Some imagine or even hope that this is the end of Notre Dame as a top Catholic university - it is not. The crisis to be addressed is not restricted to this particular university and this year's graduation speaker. The crisis has to do with the unraveling of ties between the the people of the Church, their bishops and the academic community.

Given the climate in the nation and in the Catholic community, yesterday's experience at Notre Dame will have the effect of presenting a strikingly positive image to Americans at large and Catholics in particular. The Church and its leaders will do well to take that into account and navigate wisely the depths of this crisis.