OK, let's take this nice and slow. We'll start with some disclaimers.
I realize that I have a point of view on this matter, as an openly pro-life Democrat and as an Eastern Orthodox Christian, part of an ancient tradition that has always opposed abortion. So please don't light up the comments pages on those issues.
I also know that reporters do not have an unlimited amount of space in which to cover complex news events and issues -- such as President Barack Obama's upcoming trip to the University of Notre Dame to give the commencement address and to receive an honorary doctor of laws degree. I know that in this post-post-post-modern age many people believe that accuracy is in the eye of the beholder. Let's not go there, either.
But I do believe that there are things called facts and I believe that it's good to attempt to get as many of them into news reports as possible. Remember "who, what, when, where, why and how"? This story is very complex, but those questions still matter.
With that in mind, let's look at a few references in today's Washington Post story on the pre-war festivities at Notre Dame. We'll start with that airplane in the sky over the campus.
Churning in circles above the slate rooftops and the famous golden statue of the Virgin Mary, a small plane towed a banner depicting the remains of an aborted fetus and the words "10 Week Abortion." The graphic message is directed at President Obama, who will arrive Sunday to a campus that has been jolted by abortion opponents who object to the pro-abortion-rights Democrat delivering a commencement address at the nation's largest Catholic university.
Commentary: Is the airplane's message aimed at Obama or at the Notre Dame administration? Well, that would depend on who is funding the airplane -- which underlines the fact that there are many different groups protesting at Notre Dame right now and they are protesting different things and using different tactics.
Commentary: Is the central issue that Obama is giving the address or that he is receiving an honorary doctorate in law from the nation's best known Catholic university? See the first comment, again. This issue is a consistent problem throughout the article.
At least 74 Catholic bishops criticized the invitation to Obama by Notre Dame's president, the Rev. John I. Jenkins, and more than 360,000 people signed a petition calling for Obama to be disinvited because of his support for abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research.
Commentary: Same issue again, of course. Has anyone seen the actual wording of the petition? Truth be told, it sends mixed signals, citing that it is an "honor" -- the key word -- for the president to give the address. Yet later, the petition stresses another issue, noting:
This honor is clearly a direct violation of the U.S. bishops' 2004 mandate in "Catholics in Political Life": "The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions."
So this protest notes the "honor" of Obama giving the address, without mentioning the issues that many others consider central -- the honorary law degree.
Commentary: By the way, how many U.S. Catholic bishops have released public statements supporting Notre Dame's decision? I believe that the answer is "none," which might be a fact worth mentioning. And why avoid even a reference to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops statement that is at the heart of the entire conflict? Did I miss something in the story?
"It is clear that Notre Dame didn't understand what it means to be Catholic when they issued this invitation," said Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He called the decision an "extreme embarrassment" to "many, many Catholics."
Commentary: Note that the cardinal's view of Catholicism is more complex than that of the Post. The cardinal says the Obama visit is an "extreme embarrassment" to "many, many Catholics," which clearly means that it is not an embarrassment to many, many other Catholics. This is the heart of the whole debate, which is a clash between different groups of Catholics over Obama's visit and, in some cases, over church doctrines about the sanctity of life.
On campus, students expressed distaste for the methods of antiabortion hard-liners Randall Terry and Alan Keyes, who are leading the protests. They also described a sense of pride that Notre Dame chose Obama.
Commentary: This assumes, of course, that the uber-politicos Terry and Keyes are the leaders of the only protests that are planned. It also assumes that these loud voices are typical of those who oppose the Obama visit and/or the honorary doctorate in law.
So, what do Notre Dame students think of the protests and worship services planned by real, live Catholic clergy? What about the more mainstream protests planned by students, faculty and alumni linked to Notre Dame-based pro-life groups?
Although conservatives in a number of states are trying to restrict abortions, voters in South Dakota and Colorado rejected November ballot initiatives to outlaw virtually all abortions. On a larger scale, a majority of Americans oppose overturning Roe v. Wade.
Commentary: True and very relevant. So is the fact that American support for restrictions on abortion rights is on the rise. Both of these facts are affecting this conflict at Notre Dame and in the wider world of Catholicism in America.
Asked about seniors who may boycott their commencement because of Obama's appearance, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said yesterday at his daily briefing that "it's important to understand it appears as if the vast majority of students and the majority of Catholics are supportive of the invitation the president accepted, and I know he's greatly looking forward to it."
Commentary: A great quote. I am sure that a "majority of Catholics" support the "invitation." But this only underlines the actual nature of this conflict, which is not between Notre Dame and the Terry-Keyes forces. The key conflict here is inside the Catholic establishment and even within the church's hierarchy here in America.
Looking for the story? Visit the Terry-Keyes demonstrations, since they will be colorful. But focus on the bishops and the pro-life leaders at Notre Dame, while trying to draw your lines based on the language of that U.S. bishops' policy and how it did or did not affect the decision to grant that honorary doctorate.
I know that mainstream reporters have to cover the politicos who are making the most noise and I know that they have a limited amount of space to work with. But this Post story was way, way too simplistic. The American Catholic reality is much more complex.