Addressing the Abortion Divide: President Obama at Notre Dame

It would be hard to find a single tragedy greater than the estimated 40 million abortion deaths that have taken place in the United States since the passage of Roe vs. Wade in 1973. Pope Benedict XVI has repeatedly addressed this pressing issue. The Holy Father’s homily at Yankee Stadium this past year emphasized “the inalienable dignity and rights of each man, woman and child in our world – including the most defenseless of all human beings, the unborn child in the mother’s womb” and praised America’s “prophetic witness in the defense of life.”

At face value, opposition to abortion by Catholics seems an open and shut case. Yet after forty years of all or nothing efforts to repeal this legislation there has been relatively little progress. In this situation American Catholics might do well to look to other approaches.

Near the ancient wall in Rome is the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the official “cathedral” of the Holy Father and home of the Pontifical Lateran University, training ground for Church theologians and canon lawyers. The relationship of the University to the Holy Father could not be closer. The Lateran is the Pope’s own university and is directly administered by the Holy See.

A few months before Pope Benedict’s visit to America, the Vatican awarded a significant honor in a public ceremony attended by Cardinals and civic officials at the Lateran Palace. The person receiving the award was Nicolas Sarkozy, a self-described lapsed Catholic, who publicly supports abortion rights. He is also the President of France.

Like the United States, France had legalized abortion in the mid 1970s and guarantees all of women the right to an abortion during the first ten weeks of pregnancy. Its abortion rate relative to the number of inhabitants is approximately that of the United States. For both countries increases in the abortion rate since the 1970s has had a tragic impact on individual lives and upon society as a whole.

What may be surprising to some is that the action of the Vatican in honoring the French chief of state caused almost no stir. Following the conferral of honorary membership in the Lateran Chapter, ordinarily limited to Catholic priests, Sarkozy delivered a major address on the role of Church and State relations in France. He called for his nation to repudiate its anti-religious prejudice. The open attitude articulated by the French President toward Catholicism was a remarkable step forward but it did not resolve the conflict over the abortion issue. Clearly Rome was not making Sarkozy’s position on the single issue of abortion the basis of its action.

President Obama at Notre Dame.
President Obama at Notre Dame.

The Lateran Ceremony of December 2007 is in sharp contract to the contention surrounding the invitation of President Barack Obama to speak at Notre Dame University’s 2009 commencement ceremony. Since the invitation was announced more than a dozen of America’s 195 bishops have protested this decision. They argue that given the President’s pro-choice record as a Senator, his presence at Notre Dame would weaken the Church’s pro-life efforts. Individual Catholics were urged to write to the University asking that the invitation be revoked.

The difference in pastoral approaches between the Vatican and several American bishops is noteworthy. In both instances, the Lateran University and Notre Dame University, there was no doubt about the firmness of the Church’s pro-life teachings. What was not the same was the pastoral strategy adopted to advance these principles.

An attempt to bridge this divide was provided in a March 30th article in America Magazine, a prominent Catholic weekly, by retired Archbishop John R. Quinn a figure well regarded for his carefully crafted writings on matters of the hierarchy. In his early years Archbishop Quinn had the unusual advantage of having served in the Roman Curia, but also as president of the National Council of Catholic Bishops. His article seeks to embrace both perspectives, combining his desire to promote the pro-life agenda, but do so by adopting a less confrontational, multi-issue approach.

The Archbishop does not address the rightness or wrongness of the invitation as such. Rather, he poses to his brother bishops a series of questions:

1. If the president is forced to withdraw [from Notre Dame], will that increase cooperation between the Catholic Church and the Administration, or will it create mounting tensions and deepening hostility?

2. If the president is forced to withdraw, will that bring about fewer abortions in the United States…[or] lead more people to support pro-life efforts?

3. If the president is forced to withdraw, how will it impact the image of the church? Will it enhance the mission of the church?

4. If the president is forced to withdraw… will this action be seen as proof that the bishops of the United States do not sincerely seek dialogue on major policy questions…?

Archbishop Quinn concludes by reminding his readers “taking account of what serves the greater good of the mission of the church is not opportunism. It is what Catholic tradition calls prudence. … The bishops and the president serve the same citizens of the same country. It is in the interests of both the church and the nation if both work together in civility, honesty and friendship for the common good, even where there are grave divisions, as there are on abortion.”

In an address to the students at the Pontifical Lateran University Pope Benedict affirmed that “the University is one of the best qualified places to attempt to find opportune ways to exit from …the crisis of culture and identity…before our eyes.” In a setting such as Notre Dame it seems important that the work of resolving the division on abortion in America between the Catholic Church and the State go forward.
Larry Mullaly April 29, 2009