President Obama has skirted the divisive abortion debate more successfully than any Democratic candidate in decades. Here at Notre Dame this weekend, his run will end. Conservative Catholic groups have already forced a national debate over whether a Catholic university should bestow honors on a president who is out of step with church doctrine on abortion. They don’t call them the Fighting Irish for nothing.
Pro-life leaders are increasingly finding the abortion wedge cuts both ways, further alienating American Catholics from a church that is finding ever more fair-weather followers in the United States.
When Arizona State University declined to give Obama an honorary degree earlier this week, calling his body of work incomplete, Obama brushed it off with a joke: “I learned to never again pick another team over the Sun Devils in my NCAA bracket.” This time he’ll get the degree, but no quip will do. He’ll have to take on the abortion debate head-on, while not allowing it to consume the graduation speech.
Conservative Catholic leaders—and outsiders like Randall Terry and Alan Keyes, who managed to raise his shrinking profile with an arrest days before the address—are satisfied with elevating the issue. Their content might not last. The pro-life leaders heading that crusade are increasingly finding the abortion wedge cuts both ways, further alienating American Catholics from a church that is finding ever more fair-weather followers in the United States.
Here’s what Obama’s advisers tell me his Notre Dame message will be: We disagree on some things, but we agree on more. It’s a message that resonates among many American Catholics. There is growing evidence that the alliance between Catholics and the Republican Party is over. Obama won 54 percent of Catholic votes against antiabortion Republican John McCain in November. (Bush took 52 percent of this group’s vote over John Kerry—a Catholic—in 2004.) He won 57 percent of Notre Dame students in a mock election in October.
“What’s playing out in Notre Dame this weekend,” says Douglas Kmiec, an antiabortion Catholic and constitutional-law professor at Pepperdine University who worked for presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, “is a lot of post-traumatic understanding on the part of partisan conservative voices that they’re losing the church—that the hold that they had on the church hierarchy, and certainly the hold that they had on the laity, is gone.”
Catholics are increasingly coming to two conclusions, according to Kmiec: The GOP never delivered on its antiabortion promises, and Obama is more in tune with their views—on the war in Iraq, harsh interrogations, and social-justice issues—than his Republican counterparts.
“All this time, the conservative wing of the church has struck this Faustian bargain, thought they were getting vindication of this moral principle when they were not getting that,” says Kmiec, who has advised the White House on how to approach the speech. “Then along comes Barack Obama, someone who talks and resonates in the language of Catholic thinking. He’s talking about a family wage, he’s talking about the environment, he’s talking about getting us out of an unjust war.”
Even on abortion, where Obama is notably out of step with church doctrine, he speaks a language many Catholics appreciate, calling it a “tragic moral choice” and urging an attack on the underlying causes of abortion, such as poverty.
Kmiec, author of a book on Obama, Can a Catholic Support Him?, answers his own question with a strong yes. But the Cardinal Newman Society, whose instigation of the Notre Dame uprising by rounding up of more than 360,000 signatures of Catholics opposing honors for Obama, loudly disagrees. Why? While eight other presidents have earned honorary degrees at Notre Dame and many fell afoul of Catholic dogma—as did President George W. Bush on the death penalty and the war in Iraq—Obama fails on the one political litmus test religious conservatives hold above all others.
“Abortion, for the Catholic church, is considered to be an intrinsic moral evil,” says Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society. “It’s everywhere and always wrong, and a serious concern. And in this case, it was deemed that President Obama is so sufficiently and strongly in opposition to the church teaching on these issues, that it’s completely inappropriate for Notre Dame to have him there.”
The society notes that a 2004 bishops' mandate said, "The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles." Mushiness on key church doctrines, the argument goes, threatens the very Catholic-ness of institutions like Notre Dame.
“When you’re honoring an individual who has very publicly chosen to contradict the church on very key moral issues like abortion, it’s concern for the Catholic identity of a school like the University of Notre Dame,” says Reilly.
Yet that posture isolates conservative Catholics as much as it does Obama. Lay Catholics are increasingly distancing themselves from church doctrine—on contraception, homosexuality, and, to a lesser extent, abortion. Catholics differ little from non-Catholics on a broad range of views, and they have swung notably leftward along with non-Catholics. A recent poll by Quinnipiac University found 56 percent of Americans think Notre Dame should not rescind its invitation to Obama—among Catholics the number was an even higher 60 percent.
It is a peculiarly American phenomenon, exacerbated by a rising mistrust of authority, Reilly acknowledges. “Americans historically have always had an attitude of questioning authority for good reasons,” he says. “And certainly from the 1960s, ‘70s forward, that’s become a much greater concern, especially with regard to moral authority among many Americans. And I think that’s a part of what’s being reflected here.”
The divide between Catholic doctrine and lay Catholics at large is as broad on campus as off. A group of 23 Notre Dame student organizations objected to opponents’ single-minded focus on abortion in a letter to university President Father John I. Jenkins.
“We are concerned that, in narrowing the focus to one aspect of life that has often proven polarizing and divisive, many have lost the ability to recognize the other aspects of President Obama’s work that continues to uphold the principles of justice and solidarity,” the coalition wrote.
Conservative Catholics picked a fight with a president who had hoped to continue avoiding a bruising debate that has had no clear winners since Roe v. Wade. Obama is unlikely to emerge unscathed—abortion debates tend to change few minds. But if recent history is any guide, it is the religious conservatives who are likely to leave Notre Dame battered—and increasingly isolated.
John Hendren is a Washington-based correspondent for ABC News, where he covers the White House and politics. Previously, he was the Pentagon correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and National Public Radio.