News that President Barack Obama will deliver this year's commencement address at the University of Notre Dame, a prestigious Roman Catholic institution, has triggered denunciations from at least nine American bishops. They oppose lending a platform to a politician who rejects the church's firm antiabortion stance. "Notre Dame didn't understand what it means to be Catholic when they issued this invitation," Cardinal Francis George, head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told a crowd of antiabortion advocates last weekend.
And yet Notre Dame's students appear to strongly back the university's invitation to Obama. The campus newspaper reports that 97 percent of the letters that have come in on the subject from graduating seniors are supportive.
It's just the latest example of the rift between the Catholic Church hierarchy and its American flock on a political matter. When President Obama lifted restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research last month, the bishops conference, the organizational body for American bishops, condemned the move as a "sad victory of politics over science and ethics." But an analysis this week by Gallup found that 63 percent of American Catholics consider embryonic stem cell research to be morally acceptable.
Indeed, as the bishops conference issues new critiques of the Obama administration on an almost weekly basis, it can be easy to forget that most American Catholics backed Obama at the polls last November. They supported him by 54 percent to 45 percent, a reversal from 2004, when more voted for George W. Bush than for John Kerry, a Catholic. Forty percent of Catholics with the most orthodox beliefs backed Obama, a 100 percent increase from Kerry's showing among those voters.
As U.S. bishops are becoming more emboldened in speaking out, they are spotlighting more than the differences between the church and the Democratic Party on key political issues. Increasingly, they are pointing out the differences between the church and its own American followers. "We have had a de facto schism in the church for the last generation," says Catholic League President Bill Donohue, an outspoken critic of Notre Dame's invitation to Obama and, generally speaking, of the Democrats. "The issue being forced upon the bishops is: What are they going to do to get their house in order?"
The Gallup analysis shows that American Catholics are to the left of other Americans on many so-called moral issues, despite their church's conservative positions. Fifty-four percent say that homosexual relations are morally acceptable, a clear rejection of church teaching, compared with 45 percent of non-Catholics. On the issue of embryonic stem cell research, a majority of even the most devoted Catholics, who attend church regularly, say that it's morally acceptable. Most Catholics told Gallup that abortion is morally wrong, but in the same proportion as other Americans. "The argument of those who protest the extension of the invitation to Obama is that Catholics have a distinctly conservative position on these moral issues," Gallup Editor-in-Chief Frank Newport wrote. "That is certainly the case as far as official church doctrine is concerned, but not when it comes to average American Catholics."
There are many explanations for that yawning gap: the expanded role for lay Catholics and other '60s-era reforms of Vatican II, which critics say chipped away at church authority; the priest sex abuse scandals of the past decade, which undercut the Catholic hierarchy's moral voice; and more than a century of Catholic assimilation, particularly among white Catholics. A recent Trinity College survey found that 25 percent of Americans who identify themselves as having no religion, the fastest-growing segment of the American religious landscape, are former Catholics. Had it not been for the recent surge in immigration from Latin America, the Catholic Church in the United States would have contracted dramatically in the past decade. "You're now dealing with an educated population that won't take 'because the bishop said so' as an answer on moral questions," says Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest at Georgetown's Woodstock Theological Center.
For Reese and other left-leaning Catholics, that loss of authority is all the more reason to have a dialogue with public figures like Obama, rather than denying him a speaking platform at Notre Dame. "If you had faith in your argument, you would say, 'Bring him on—we can beat him,' " says Reese, arguing that Catholics might move the president to the right on abortion and stem cell research through engagement.