As the old saying goes in hurricane territory, "I think we're in for a bit of a blow." It will be interesting to see how the mainstream press handles the facts in the upcoming culture warfare over President Barack Obama's scheduled commencement address at the University of Notre Dame.
There is a real story here, of course. Rest assured that Catholics are going to split on how to handle this, because American Catholics -- including some bishops, based on the evidence -- are divided on how to handle public conflicts about basic issues of sexual morality. In the pews, this conflict tends to follow the typology of our four basic kinds of Catholic voters.
Briefly stated, here they are again:
* Ex-Catholics. Solid for the Democrats.
* Cultural Catholics who may go to church a few times a year. This may be an undecided voter, but this vote leans to Democrats.
* Sunday-morning American Catholics. This voter is a regular in the pew and may even play some leadership role in the parish. This is the true Catholic swing vote.
* The "sweats the details" Roman Catholic who goes to confession, is active in the full sacramental life of the parish and almost always backs the Vatican on doctrinal matters. This group is a small slice of the American Catholic pie.
So this brings us back to the work of Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Time, who is a columnist, but one that is so intensely interested in issues of religion and journalism that we often are provoked to discuss him here at GetReligion. In a recent column on the Obama and Notre Dame firestorm, Rutten perfectly sums up what is, far too often, the mainstream media's approach to Catholicism.
In a nutshell, Rutten believes the pope is a Catholic, but just another Catholic -- one of many authoritative voices. The question is whether that statement is factually accurate. One does not have to agree with the pope on a particular issue to know that, in the context of the Catholic faith, his role is unique. There is only one man sitting on the throne of Peter.
For Rutten, it seems, the pope may have the same doctrinal standing as the vice president of the United States, when it comes to vital issues of doctrine and practice. Here's the crucial chunk of the column:
... (A) small group of protesters is outraged that a Catholic university would extend such an invitation to a politician who is both pro-choice and willing to countenance embryonic stem cell research -- even if he is, as we used to say, the leader of the free world.
A brief pause: I believe that the newspaper's style is "pro-abortion rights," not "pro-choice." Back to the column.
There are a couple of things about this culture-warfare-as-usual controversy that are fresh and consequential enough to be of interest. The first is the protesters and their connections. Many are part of a vocal, Internet-savvy lobby that has been agitating to coerce the church's prelates into denying Communion to Catholic officeholders who deviate from a rigidly "pro-life" line. Made up of a number of smaller groups, this lobby has campaigned to keep other pro-choice officeholders (of any religion) from speaking at Catholic schools. Its supporters also have been vociferously active in the movement to use abortion as a wedge to lever Catholics into the religious right.
The effort turns on convincing Catholics -- for decades now, the principal swing voters in presidential elections -- that they're obliged to vote on the basis of moral issues important to the right wing of the church, such as abortion, stem cell research and, more recently, marriage equality. The movement has attracted a handful of marginal figures among the country's Catholic bishops. Two of them -- the bishops of Phoenix and South Bend -- have weighed in condemning Obama's appearance at Notre Dame. The South Bend bishop, who usually attends the graduation, has said he'll boycott this year's ceremony.
As a columnist, Rutten has ever right to his opinion and ever right to publish it. I would argue that it is interesting to note the contents of his opinion, in this case. I suspect that many journalists share his views.
The key phrases? Well, for starters, those who back the Vatican's stand on this issue are advocating a "rigidly 'pro-life' line." This, I assume, means that there is a non-rigid line that others hold in the Catholic hierarchy, which would mean backing Obama's flawless record opposing any and all restrictions on abortion rights. Thus, the pope is a KIND OF Catholic, not the voice of the Catholic church's magisterium.
Second, the circle of U.S. bishops who support the belief that there is a link between a Catholic's beliefs and actions and their ability -- after the Sacrament of Confession -- to receive Holy Communion is said to consist of "a handful of marginal figures." However, note that this circle includes the local bishop who -- under the crucial Ex Corde Ecclesia document -- is the shepherd of the diocese in which Notre Dame is located. To Rome, this means something. But, again, Rutten argues that this is simply a faction within the American church.
This small faction now includes Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Texas and Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who in a few days will take over the Archdiocese of New York, has also spoken out on this issue (kind of). Dolan was asked if Notre Dame made a mistake, in choosing to honor Obama in a way that clashes with that 2004 U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops statement that forbade giving "awards, honors or platforms" to "those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles."
Dolan didn't hesistate a bit, responding "They did, and I say that as one who loves and respects Notre Dame. They made a big mistake."
"There's a lot of things that President Obama does that we can find ourselves allied with and working with him on, and we have profound respect for him and pray with him and for him," Dolan said. "But in an issue that is very close to the heart of Catholic world view, namely, the protection of innocent life in the womb, he has unfortunately taken a position very much at odds with the Church."
Finally, note that Rutten identifies abortion and the definition of marriage -- issues the Vatican has addressed in very strong language a number of times -- are merely "moral issues important to the right wing of the church." That, friends, is a libel against liberal Catholic pro-lifers if there ever was one.
Like I said, it will be crucial for mainstream journalists to allow Catholics on the left and right to state their views clearly and even -- especially online -- to allow them to quote chapter and verse from Catholic teachings and pronouncements from the Vatican.
Not that the Vatican has anything definitive to say on these matters.
Photo: Two famous members of the handful of strongly anti-abortion Catholic leaders who have previously backed centuries of church doctrine on the right to life.