The University of Notre Dame invites President Obama to speak at its commencement ceremony. The American Catholic bishops react with outrage. A nationwide poll shows that a majority of American Catholics approve of the university's decision. And when graduation day arrives, Catholic clergy join swarms of protesters outside the event, audience members disrupt the president's speech with catcalls and protesting chants inside the event, and national media stories emerge questioning why the Vatican hasn't weighed in on the matter.
What a mess.
And for those who are upset with what happened at Notre Dame's commencement ceremony, take note: The "mess" is not the fault of President Obama. This is a result of a persistent problem that the church has with poor communication, and the president has ended up in the middle of it.
To blame this fiasco on a "communication problem" may seem to be oversimplifying the matter. But a careful look at the present situation, coupled with a quick review of recent history, suggests that, indeed, the Catholic Church in America is neither communicating very clearly to the broader American society, nor is it communicating very clearly among its own members.
In response to the outrage over the Obama invitation, Father John Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, claimed that President Obama had been invited to speak at the university not because of his stance on abortion rights, but because he is an inspiring leader who has overcome a racial barrier. That's a fair assessment of President Obama, so far as it goes; indeed, Obama has overcome a very significant racial barrier, and he is an inspiring figure for this reason, if for no other.
But what is confounding here is the indirect communication. Jenkins's response to the controversy implies that abortion is merely one of several issues in the realm of political leadership and public policy that Catholics are supposed to care about, and anyone who takes seriously the broader body of Catholic teaching would have to conclude that this implication is true.
Yet Jenkins's response to the situation also implies that Catholics can "agree to disagree" over the abortion issue—that it's OK to form alliances with civic leaders who, while perhaps being out-of-step with the church on abortion, nonetheless exemplify other values and priorities that the church believes are essential for society. This is not necessarily an unreasonable stance for the church to assume. But is this really the position that the church is assuming these days?
For clarification's sake, let's ask the question a bit differently: In the view of the bishops, is it OK for a Catholic to support a politician who may seem to have the "right" position on a wide array of issues, even if he is "wrong" on abortion, or is abortion the singular, supreme, nonnegotiable, ultimate litmus test item by which all politicians must be judged? Looking at the history of the American bishops, the answer is a bit murky. The bishops did issue a document on "faithful citizenship" back in late 2007—roughly a year before the 2008 presidential election—wherein they asserted that the abortion issue is "not just one issue among many," but rather, is of preeminent importance.
Yet, during the tenure of presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the Catholic bishops published pastoral documents criticizing the presidents (especially Reagan) on the issues of nuclear weapons proliferation, poverty, and the economy, despite the fact that they had a "friend" in both presidents when it came to "the sanctity of life." Similarly, while the bishops had an ally on the life issue with President George W. Bush, and allowed him to speak at the opening ceremonies of the historic Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C., back in March 2001, they nonetheless were critics of Bush regarding the war in Iraq, even lamenting the Bush administration's alleged "inhumane treatment" of Saddam Hussein after his capture by American soldiers. The bishops' critiques of these three former presidents clearly suggest, at the very least, that they are mindful of a broad array of moral and ethical issues that impact public life, and not merely abortion.
Corrected on : Austin Hill is a radio talk show host at Newstalk 92-3 KTAR in Phoenix, Ariz., and a frequent guest host for Washington, D.C.'s 630 WMAL and the Fox Newstalk Radio Network. He is the coauthor of White House: Confidential -- The Little Book of Weird Presidential History.