Regular readers of Blogcritics Magazine's Politics pages know that I am not a religious man. What most of you don't know, however, is that I have more than a passing familiarity with the Roman Catholic religion. Understandably, most of you won't care about my personal religious viewpoint, but I bring it up it because it is germane to this discussion.
I was raised in the Catholic faith by my very devout mother, with the acquiescence of my father, who was an Agnostic, leaning toward atheism. My mother had me baptized as a baby, confirmed as I approached adolescence, and sent me to Catechism classes throughout my childhood. I was even graduated from a Catholic high school.
Throughout this period of indoctrination by my mother and the Church, my father stood benignly by, never interjecting his own viewpoint unless I asked him a direct question. I asked him many questions, as I did of the priests whose paths crossed mine, and finally, in my late teens, I decided that my father's answers were more cogent and made better sense than those of the clergy. While I obviously cannot characterize myself as impartial on the issue of religion, clearly my bias is not on the side of the Church.
I have watched with interest as the controversy over President Obama's invitation to speak at the University of Notre Dame commencement tomorrow has raged across the country. Obama will be the ninth sitting U.S. President to deliver Notre Dame's commencement address, and certainly the most controversial.
Many of the pundits on both sides of the issue have aimed their opinions at the question of Obama having been invited to speak at the commencement, in spite of his pro-choice stance. But this is only part of the controversy; Catholic opinion is divided, and many of the Catholics opposing Obama's appearance have another concern: the customary conferring of an honorary degree (in this case, in Law) on the President. While many of the Catholics who have vowed to protest Obama's appearance have indicated their opposition to his presence, the stance of the Vatican, in the person of Pope Benedict, has remained studiedly neutral, with the Pope refraining from even discussing the controversy. The locus of official opposition on the part of the Church is a vocal minority (about 20%) of U.S. Catholic Bishops, led by Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who reacted to the announcement from Notre Dame, saying, "It is clear that Notre Dame didn't understand what it means to be Catholic when they issued this invitation."
One of the most principled and important of the protesters has received little mention in the press. She is Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard law professor and a former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. Glendon, a conservative Catholic voice, was also slated to speak at the commencement, undoubtedly as a counterpoint to the President's speech, and was to have received the Laetare medal, considered to be one of the most important Catholic honors for a lay person. Glendon, in protest, bowed out. Notes John Kass, in the Chicago Tribune:
In her letter, Glendon said that she did not oppose Obama speaking to the graduates. What bothered her was Notre Dame conferring an honorary degree on a president who supports abortion rights.
She noted that such an award would be in direct violation of a 2004 statement by U.S. Catholic bishops declaring that Catholic institutions "should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles" and that such persons "should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions."
"That request," wrote Glendon to Rev. Jenkins [president of Notre Dame], "which in no way seeks to control or interfere with an institution's freedom to invite and engage in serious debate with whomever it wishes, seems so reasonable that I am at a loss to understand why a Catholic university should disrespect it."
By a 60 to 34 percent margin, US Catholic lay persons do not oppose the invitation, according to a Quinnipiac University national poll published May 14th. Interestingly, the same poll indicates that similar results were obtained from the general population, which would seem to signal that the issue is political, not religious.
Even within the ranks of Catholic lay leadership, opinions are divided. Brent Lang, of CBS News, writes,
…[T]his week, James Salt, communications director of Catholics United, and Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, clashed over the Obama invitation. Both men believed that Mr. Obama should be allowed to speak, but Donohue, whose group has opposed to Notre Dame's decision, felt that the university should have refrained from bestowing an honorary degree on somebody who differed with the church on abortion.
The University of Notre Dame commencement ceremony will be broadcast live on the Internet on the university's commencement Web site, starting at 2 p.m. on May 17, as well as on most broadcast news outlets.