THIS CATHOLIC’S VIEW
By Thomas J. Reese, S.J.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, there was a steady drumbeat of opposition to Barack Obama from some U.S. Catholic bishops, which only increased after his election. But despite the attention these attacks received in the media and on Internet blogs, polls show that the Catholic people are not listening.
He has been criticized:
• for being the most pro-abortion president ever, even though he wants to develop programs that will reduce the number of abortions while keeping it legal under most circumstances (he supports restrictions in the third trimester with an exception for the health of the mother);
• for allowing organizations that do abortions outside the U.S. to receive government funds, even though the funds cannot be used for abortions but only for non-abortion-related activities such as health care and birth control;
• for proposing to revise the Bush regulations dealing with stem cell research, even though the proposed revisions are less radical than many anticipated (no cloning is allowed and only stem cells from IVF embryos that would otherwise be discarded can be used; plus the informed consent rules are tightened);
• for proposing to revise the Bush regulations that allow conscientious objection in health care, even though it is clear from the law that the revised regulations cannot require doctors, nurses or hospitals to perform abortions;
• and for supporting the Freedom of Choice Act, even though everyone in Congress says FOCA is going nowhere (it has not even been introduced in this Congress) and the President has said it is not one of his priorities (which is the equivalent of deep-sixing it).
These critiques seem to be falling on deaf ears.
In the presidential election, Catholics voted for Obama, and Hispanic Catholics, who are a growing percentage of U.S. Catholics, gave him around two-thirds of their vote. Since the election, Obama has continued to do as well if not better with Catholics in the polls.
Nor are Catholics listening to those bishops who have condemned Notre Dame University for inviting the President to speak at its commencement this month. According to a Pew Forum poll, 48 percent of Catholics have not even heard of the controversy. And when asked whether it was right or wrong for Notre Dame to invite Obama to speak and to give him an honorary degree, 50 percent of Catholics said it was right and only 28 percent said it was wrong.
What is wrong? Why are the bishops not being listened to?
Many think they lost their credibility because of the sex abuse crisis. Others say it was even earlier when the laity rejected the hierarchy’s opposition to artificial birth control.
I think part of the problem is that the bishops stopped listening and teaching and started ordering and condemning. With an educated laity it no longer works to simply say, “it is the teaching of the church.” This is the equivalent of a parent shouting, “Because I said so.”
The bishops must persuade and convince with arguments not by turning up the volume. When they resort to commanding and threatening punishments, people are turned off. Banning speakers, denying Communion, silencing theologians is a sign of weakness not strength. Censorship and violations of academic freedom come across as admissions that their arguments are not convincing and therefore the opposition must be silenced.
The result is that the sales of books go up after a theologian is condemned. Obama’s Notre Dame speech will be covered by every cable news channels. Even movie producers understand this dynamic, which is why “Angels and Demons” is having its world premier in Rome and is just begging the Vatican to condemn it.
The bishops are being egged on by Republican activists whose presidential candidate lost the election. There is clearly a conservative conspiracy to do whatever is possible (including lying about ambassadorial candidates) to create conflict between the Catholic Church and the Obama administration. They want the Catholic Church to be the Republican Party at prayer. Some bishops are falling for this.
But the Vatican is not falling into this trap. It clearly wants to have a positive relationship with Obama. The Pope sent him a congratulatory note after his election, although it is normal Vatican protocol not to do this until after the inauguration. Recently, an article in L’Osservatore Romano stated that the first 100 days of the Obama administration have not confirmed the Catholic Church’s worst fears about radical policy changes in ethical areas. No American bishop has been brave or honest enough to say this.
The best Vatican journalists John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter and John Thavis of Catholic News Service could find no evidence of an anti-Obama sentiments from the Pope or the Vatican Secretariat of State. The Vatican has had centuries of experience working with governments where they agree and talking to them about those issues where they disagree.
The bishops who oppose the President’s presence at Notre Dame are going to be embarrassed by the warm welcome he receives from the commencement audience. Every round of applause will be a repudiation of their condemnations.
The bishops will also be embarrassed when Pope Benedict welcomes President Obama at the Vatican, or are all these people going to tell the Pope that he cannot talk to a pro-choice President?
Thomas J. Reese, S.J., is Senior Fellow at Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.
By Thomas J. Reese |
May 5, 2009; 4:44 PM ET
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