Notre Dame and President Obama
When I imagine communities with the longest histories and traditions of the Christian faith, the Roman Catholic Church is one of two that come immediately to mind--the other being the communions of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Each of these oldest forms of the Christian Church has a heritage of faith embodied in its theological literature, sacred rites and liturgies, and engagement with its cultural context that is noteworthy. So I respect Roman Catholics, and honor them--albeit as an outsider. Not everything about this Christian tradition is worthy of honor and respect, and like all traditions, there are indices of the presence of sin and evil in what would otherwise be most holy persons, places and practices. But for such indices, there stands judgment and redress in appropriate form.
My Christian tradition is Baptist, and in particular, American Baptist, one of the so-called mainline denominations in the U.S. Here too there are indices of sin and evil commingled with measures of faithfulness and service. As far back as the early seventeenth century, my ancestors in the faith struggled mightily with other Christian traditions--Roman and Anglican--that sought to suppress the Baptist view of faith and church life as both heretical and treasonous. The story of the founding of our nation includes the strong advocacy of Baptists for religious liberty and freedom of conscience. My ancestors in the faith believed and taught that no one--person or institution--could answer for me before my God, or do anything that would assure or exclude my enrollment in the community of faith in its earthly or heavenly form. I, and I alone, am responsible for that, and so I must be and remain free to make my own decision about my standing before my Creator.
In our history as a nation, the affirmation of the individual's freedom of conscience contributed to the codification of religious liberty in the First Amendment of our Constitution. There we find the recognition of our freedom of religion and freedom of speech in a democratic system that acknowledges the right of full and free participation of citizens in public life and decision-making. As a system of government assuring personal liberty and full participation, democracy depends upon unfettered access to the venues of discussion and debate on matters that affect each and all. Particular beliefs and ideas and differences of opinion may be uncomfortable and dissonant to intellectual and social sensibility, but in our democracy we each have the right to hold our views and express our beliefs and live accordingly, so long as by doing so we do not infringe on the life and liberty of others.
So it is most disheartening to learn that many Roman Catholic leaders--both lay and clergy--have spoken out so critically against the University of Notre Dame for its invitation to President Barack Obama to deliver the 2009 commencement address and receive an honorary Doctorate of Laws degree. The reasons given by these dissenters are related to President Obama's support for abortion and stem cell research. How could a Catholic university bring into its midst in a most public event a speaker whose views on these two matters are at such variance, even contradiction, with Catholic moral teaching?
Such an invitation is viewed as an offense against the Catholic faith and, in the words of Francis Cardinal George, President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Archbishop of the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago, an "extreme embarrassment" to Catholics. Speaking before a conference in March on the Vatican document Dignitatis Personae, the cardinal went on to say, as quoted in the Catholic Online, "Whatever else is clear, it is clear that Notre Dame didn't understand what it means to be Catholic when they issued this invitation."
What is disheartening to me is that some Catholics oppose the invitation to President Obama because he holds views that are different from official Catholic teaching. Because of these differences, he should be prevented from speaking in a Catholic venue. Surely this resistance does not result from an insecurity among those who hold a Catholic view or an inability to articulate the Catholic view with a force of reason and theological understanding. But why else would Catholics oppose the invitation? Is it because the president's speaking would appear to be a legitimation of his opposing views on abortion and stem cell research? Could it be that the invitation subtly acknowledges the plausibility of non-Catholic views on these matters?
Or could it be that those Catholics who are so opposed to the invitation are simply intolerant, unwilling to acknowledge and accept the right of the President of the United States--or any other citizen of this country--to hold and express views that are not universally shared and are in fact socially and morally controversial?
There is no reason to believe that the university's invitation represents a change in its Catholic views on these matters, any more than the president's acceptance of the invitation signals a change in his own views. Indeed, it is most likely that the subjects of abortion and stem cell research will go unmentioned in the speech--there are equally grave matters before us as a civil society that need the attention and analysis of our leaders. Moreover, I hardly think the commencement address is a fitting venue to hold a public policy debate on these two issues, and I'm reasonably certain that the university did not invite the president with the expectation that such a debate would occur.
The General Social Survey, conducted biennially by the National Opinion Research Center, asks a series of questions designed to measure the degree of tolerance toward certain groups typically regarded as outside the mainstream of American social and political life. These groups are those who are anti-religion, socialist, racist, communist, militarist or homosexual. In particular, the questions ask the respondent whether such persons should or should not be allowed to speak in their community, to teach in a college or university, or to have a book written by such a person available on the shelf at the public library.
It is painful to think that some leaders of a religious tradition that I honor and respect seem to have taken on a new form of intolerance directed against a democratically elected national political leader. It occurs to me that the invitation by the university can and should be seen as a measure of its honor and respect not only for the presidency, but for the man who occupies the office. And certainly the acceptance of the invitation can and must be seen as a measure of honor and respect for the University of Notre Dame, perhaps the most prestigious Catholic university in the U.S. We live in a civil democracy where the intent is for all to have unfettered access to, and unrestrained participation in, the public venues where the discussion of matters that affect our common life take place. Universities, as free communities of inquiry and learning, are one of those venues, and to contend that a president who holds a different view should not be allowed to speak there can only be construed as intolerance.
My respect for Roman Catholics is not diminished, but I think in some ways the faith has been.
Douglas R. Sharp