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Obama, Notre Dame and the Intra-Catholic Struggle

As you probably know by now, President Obama is due to deliver the commencement address and pick up an honorary degree from the University of Notre Dame on Sunday. And protests over the appearance--and much earlier, over the invitation--have become a big cause celebre for conservative Catholics, including a sizable chunk of the Church hierarchy.

The issue, of course, is whether a Catholic university should be honoring or even listening to a pro-choice president, given the Church's position on abortion, and more to the point, given the conviction of anti-abortion activists that Obama is presiding over a twenty-first century version of the Holocaust.

But the annoying thing about the controversy is the planted axiom in much of the coverage that Catholics are having to decide whether their anti-abortion beliefs should trump every other moral and political issue, or simple respect to a President of the United States. We are often told that a majority of Catholics voted for Obama, and support the decision to invite him to speak at Notre Dame. The impression often left is that Catholics have forgotten about the primacy of "life" issues, and have let themselves be lured into error by concerns over, say, their jobs or health care needs or global warming, or their opposition to Bush foreign policies.

But it's important to understand that this isn't just a matter of priorities for millions of American Catholics: they are actually no more likely to hold anti-abortion views than the rest of the U.S. population. According to a new Quinnipiac poll, 13 percent of Catholics think abortion should be legal in all cases, while 37 percent think it should be legal in most cases; voters as a whole break down at 15% and 37%. Only 16% of Catholics (as compared with 14% of Americans as a whole) think abortion should be illegal in all cases.

Now it's entirely possible to be in favor of legalized abortion while still deploring the practice. But it seems Catholics are no more likely to be "morally opposed" to abortion than other Americans. According to a recent Gallup survey, 40% of Catholics (as compared to 41% of non-Catholics) consider abortion "morally acceptable." And that's not so strange, since the same survey shows 71% of Catholics finding divorce "morally acceptable" (the number is 66% among non-Catholics), with similarly positive moral acceptance levels for pre-marital sex (67%, compared to 57% of non-Catholics), having a child out of wedlock (61%; 52% among non-Catholics) and homosexual relations (54%; 45% of non-Catholics). None of these positions, of course, are in line with contemporary Church doctrine.

What this should make clear is that the brouhaha over Obama's Notre Dame appearance is less about Obama versus Catholics than Catholics versus Catholics. One of the leading agitators against Obama's appearance, First Things editor Joseph Bottum, has written a long piece arguing that the controversy is part of an epic struggle to force "elitist" Catholic colleges back into line with both the hierarchy and grassroots Catholic anti-abortion sentiment (Damon Linker ripostes that "it is Bottum and his theoconservative allies who stand on the margins of American Catholic life").

Further, the intra-Catholic struggle is an old story in this country, dating back at least to the "Americanist Heresy" furor of the late nineteenth century, which also centered on conservative claims that Catholic academicians were too accomodating to secular American culture. Interestingly enough, as Linker points out, an especially sharp rebuke to Bottum's essay came from Catholic traditionalist Patrick Deneen, who lashes politically conservative Catholics for undermining the faith and encouraging an emphasis on "individual choice" through their enthusiasm for capitalism.

The more you look at it all, Barack Obama is to a large extent a bystander in the battles over his appearance at Notre Dame, no matter how it's spun in the news media or by Republicans. Some Catholic conservatives may indeed think of him as a baby-killing libertine, but that's how they've viewed most Democratic politicians for some time now. What they're really upset about is how many of their co-religionists--whom they constantly mock as "non-observant," lapsed or "cafeteria Catholics"--reject Church doctrine on abortion and other gender and sexuality issues, and won't submit. And for all the explicit and implicit suggestions that "liberal" Catholics aren't "real" Catholics, I doubt the hard-core traditionalists are really quite prepared to invite half the American Church to walk away.