With so many Roman Catholic bishops speaking out against Notre Dame University's decision to honor President Barack Obama at this year's commencement, we've seen quite a few stories in the mainstream press. When Mary Ann Glendon declined to receive the Laetare Medal in protest, we saw even more. But it's been hard to put the story in perspective or context since there have been few stories looking at the overall scenario. So I was happy to see Eric Gorski's piece for the Associated Press that discusses the general situation. He begins with the news that Orlando Bishop Thomas Wenski will celebrate a Mass of Reparation to make amends for sins against God in response to what Wenski calls Notre Dame's "clueless" decision to bestow on Obama an honorary doctorate:
The nation's flagship Catholic university's honoring of a politician whose abortion rights record clashes with a fundamental church teaching has triggered a reaction among the nation's Catholic bishops that is remarkable in scope and tone, church observers say.
At least 55 bishops have publicly denounced or questioned Notre Dame in recent weeks, employing an arsenal of terms ranging from "travesty" and "debacle" to "extreme embarrassment."
The bishops' response is part of a decades-long march to make abortion the paramount issue for their activism, a marker of the kind of bishops Rome has sent to the U.S. and the latest front in a struggle over Catholic identity that has exposed rifts between hierarchy and flock.
Triggers, arsenals and marches, oh my! Apart from the metaphors, perhaps, it's nice to have what's happening explained in context of the Catholic hierarchy and its role in the public square. Gorski explains that those who have spoken out represent "20%" of the bishops and describes them as a minority but more than double the number who publicly said then-Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry, a Catholic, should be refused Communion or refrain from it because of his abortion stance. It might be nice to be told how many Catholic bishops have supported Notre Dame's decision. I believe that the total number is zero, too small to even be a minority.
Gorski includes a helpful quote that explains the perspective of Catholics who support the church's teachings and why they don't support honoring Obama. He also explains that Wenski is not among the nation's more confrontational bishops and decided to encourage Catholics to pray.
Wenski said he will not "preach a tirade against Notre Dame" during the Monday night Mass at Orlando's Cathedral of St. James. What must be atoned for, Wenski said, is complacency among U.S. Catholics about the legal killing of unborn children, which contributed to the climate that allowed Notre Dame to think it was all right to honor Obama.
You know, the paragraph above is a good example of great reporting and it is shocking how rarely we see it. This is how many bishops speak. This is how many clergy speak. It's not political so we rarely see it included in stories. This Christian perspective about sin and complacency and the need for repentance among the flock is common -- but it doesn't fit the typical narrative about Christians hypocritically taking pitchforks to others, and so we don't see it enough. I'm always struck by the variance between what I hear in Christian circles and how Christianity is presented in the mainstream media. I bet most of the bishops, clergy and laypeople who are upset about honoring Obama have discussed this complacency problem and yet this is the first time I've seen it presented in the mainstream media.
Unfortunately, the story has some weaknesses, too. It claims Mary Ann Glendon turned down the medal "because she was to have shared the stage with Obama." Um, not exactly. Otherwise she would have turned it down the moment he was announced. And if it was about sharing the stage with Obama, why would she have given four reasons for declining the medal, none of which have to do with sharing a stage with him?
Or what about this section which begins by saying bishops have long fought abortion "but it's never been their sole focus." It's not now, either, of course:
Many Catholic bishops, however, worried that abortion was getting shortchanged. Those who argue abortion trumps everything say that other issues are irrelevant without the beginning of life and that things like capital punishment and war are sometimes justified.
Bishops hammered that home in November 2007 with a statement on faithful citizenship that said: "The direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life is always wrong and is not just one issue among many."
The second paragraph is clear but I find the first a bit confusing. Anyway, there have been quite a few reporters wondering -- on their blogs or otherwise -- why people are so much more upset about Obama's abortion stance than other politicians' stance on other issues. That quote from the bishops -- which has been around for some time, of course, helps clarify.
The story goes on to suggest a major rift between the Catholic bishops and Catholics in general:
So far, the Notre Dame saga doesn't seem to be resonating. Only about half of Catholics surveyed by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life from April 23 to 27 had heard about the controversy.
About half of U.S. Catholics supported Notre Dame, 28% said the school was wrong and 22% had no opinion, the poll found. People who attend Mass frequently were more likely to oppose the university's stance, and also gave Obama lower job performance marks.
I just find this a bit weak. I mean, I don't even know if the percentage of Catholics who have heard about the controversy is more or less than the American average. And when Pew sent its press release about the poll to me, they pitched it as something completely different. People who don't attend Mass weekly and are otherwise less observant were fine with Notre Dame's invite. Those who do attend Mass weekly said it was wrong for Notre Dame to invite Obama. Catholics are such a huge percentage of the population that most reporting on them is served by breaking down observance levels. Particularly since there is a somewhat unique practice among Catholics of retaining the identity apart from any subscription to the church's teachings, practices or devotional schedule. There's also the issue that many Catholics supported Obama for President.
And since we're talking about resonance and the abortion debate, it might be good to include another, even more recent Pew poll that shows a dramatic slip in American support for legalized abortion. I have yet to read any mainstream coverage of this poll. The proportion saying that abortion should be legal in all or most cases has declined to 46 percent from 54 percent just last August. The poll doesn't ask people why they are changing their positions but certainly it's worth considering whether the public voice of the Catholic bishops has any influence.
The piece ends nicely, though, with more discussion of Wenski, who explains that the bishops are not angry at Obama but the university leadership. Still, they are frustrated with the Obama administration's decision to fund overseas groups that perform abortions, expansions of research that destroys human embryos and proposed revisions to conscience clauses that protect health workers. Gorski notes that Wenski speaks out about torture and immigration as well and quotes Wenski explaining that bishops are not looking for a fight but standing on principle. It's nice to get some more perspective from these bishops who are speaking out so much against Notre Dame University.