Inside the Obama-Notre Dame Debate
President Obama goes to the University of Notre Dame this Sunday to deliver the commencement address and receive an honorary degree, the ninth US president to be so honored. The event has stirred up a hornet's nest of conservative Catholics, with more than forty bishops objecting, and hundreds of thousands of Catholics signing petitions in protest. In the words of South Bend's Bishop John M. D'Arcy, the complaint boils down to President Obama's "long-stated unwillingness to hold human life as sacred." Notre Dame, the bishop charged, has chosen "prestige over truth."
Not even most Catholics agree with such criticism. A recent Pew poll, for instance, shows that 50 percent of Catholics support Notre Dame's decision to honor Obama; little more than one-quarter oppose. It is, after all, possible to acknowledge the subtle complexities of "life" questions-- When actually does human life begin? How is stem cell research to be ethically carried out?--and even to suggest that they are more complex than most Catholic bishops think, without thereby "refusing to hold human life as sacred."
For many outside the ranks of conservative religious belief, this dispute may seem arcane indeed. Since it's more than likely that the anti-Obama complainers were once John McCain supporters, many observers see the Notre Dame flap as little more than mischief by Republicans who still deplore the Democratic victory in November. Given the ways in which the dispute can be reduced to the merely parochial, why should Americans care?
Medievalism in Our Future?
In fact, the crucial question that underlies the flap at Notre Dame has enormous importance for the unfolding twenty-first century: Will Roman Catholicism, with its global reach, including more than a billion people crossing every boundary of race, class, education, geography and culture, be swept into the rising tide of religious fundamentalism?
Those Catholics who regard a moderate progressive like Barack Obama as the enemy--despite the fact that his already unfolding social and health programs, including support for impoverished women, will do more to reduce the number of abortions in America than the glibly pro-life George W. Bush ever did--have so purged ethical thought of any capacity to draw meaningful distinctions as to reduce religious faith to blind irrationality. They have so embraced a spirit of sectarian intolerance as to undercut the Church's traditional catholicity, adding fuel to the spreading fire of religious contempt for those who depart from rigidly defined orthodoxies. They are resurrecting the lost cause of religion's war against modernity--a war of words that folds neatly into the new century's war of weapons.
If the Catholic reactionaries succeed in dominating their church, a heretofore unfundamentalist tradition, what would follow? The triumph of a strain of contemporary Roman Catholicism that rejects pluralism, feminism, clerical reform, religious self-criticism, historically minded theology and the scientific method as applied to sacred texts would only exacerbate alarming trends in world Christianity as a whole, and at the worst of times. This may especially be so in the nations of the Southern Hemisphere, where Catholicism sees its future. It's there that proselytizing evangelical belief, Protestant and Catholic both, is spreading rapidly. Between 1985 and 2001, for example, Catholic membership increased in Africa by 87 percent, in Europe by 1 percent.
In their shared determination to restore the medieval European Catholicism into which they were born, popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI became inadvertent avatars of the new Catholic fundamentalism, a fact reflected in the character of the bishops they appointed to run the church, so many of whom now find President Obama to be a threat to virtue. The great question now is whether this defensive, pre-Enlightenment view of the faith will maintain a permanent grip on the Catholic imagination. John Paul II and Benedict XVI may be self-described apostles of peace, yet if this narrow aspect of their legacy takes hold, they will have helped to undermine global peace, not through political intention but deeply felt religious conviction.