Obama, Notre Dame, and the Character Thing

Paul Kengor

5/14/2009 4:19:07 PM - Paul Kengor

In May 1995, his first year as Pennsylvania governor, Tom Ridge was invited by Gannon University, a Catholic college in Erie, Pa., to give the commencement address and receive an honorary degree. But the distinguished Republican and native son had a problem: he was a pro-choice Catholic.

Erie Bishop Donald Trautman expressed his "concerns." Governor Ridge declined the degree.

"The last thing I would want is for those differences to distract in any way from this wonderful day of recognition for Gannon's class of 1995," said Ridge. His spokesman explained that the decision "came from the governor."

Ridge did the right thing. He did the character thing.

That wasn't the only case. As far back as June 1974, shortly after Roe v. Wade became law, the famous Cardinal Joseph Mindszenty refused an invitation and honorary degree from the University of Santa Clara because of an abortion controversy involving the university. Mindszenty did the character thing.

Obviously, this is relevant because of the situation with President Barack Obama and Notre Dame. On Saturday, Obama will deliver the commencement address and receive an honorary degree from Notre Dame, courtesy of the invitation and insistence of Notre Dame President John Jenkins.

This has caused a tremendous scandal. In fact, Church officials are using precisely that word-"scandal"-which has loaded, pejorative meaning in today's Catholic Church, reserved for the worst offenses. One Vatican official calls the Notre Dame situation "the greatest scandal."

Countless letters and 350,000 signatures from Catholics all over America have flowed into Notre Dame, demanding Jenkins rescind the invitation or resign. Millions of dollars from alumni are in jeopardy. Arrests of protestors have already taken place , with more sure to follow.

Notre Dame's bishop, John D'Arcy, carefully instructed Father Jenkins that his invitation stands in "clear" violation of the American bishops' guidelines, openly articulated in their statement, Catholics in Political Life . Jenkins has rebuffed D'Arcy, who, in turn, will not be attending graduation for the first time in 25 years as bishop.

The other speaker scheduled for the day, the renowned Catholic stateswoman, former ambassador to the Vatican, and Harvard law professor, Mary Ann Glendon, is also staying home, refusing the school's Laetare Medal, which she would have received alongside President Obama. Additional priests and church officials, plus students, are boycotting. Voices condemning Notre Dame range from Norma McCorvey-"Jane Roe" herself, who is now a pro-life Catholic-to Archbishop Raymond Burke, head of the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican's highest court. (Burke calls Obama "an agent of death.")

I literally cannot think of a single episode in American history where a Catholic university has found itself in such an uproar with a president. Indeed, the previous pro-choice president, Bill Clinton, was not invited by Jenkins' predecessor.

Thus, President Obama should do the right thing-the character thing-and let Jenkins off the hook by not attending. He should take the high road, "No, Father Jenkins, I insist. This is hurting you and your university."

Apparently, Obama will not do that. Why not?

I'm not a mind reader, but I can report on the speculation, and it isn't pretty. I've spoken to Catholics ranging from laity and priests to journalists, scholars, and even university presidents. I can report to Obama and his advisers, sincerely, that the target has shifted to not merely Notre Dame, but to both Notre Dame and Obama.

Previously, the view had been that Obama was Obama, and it was Notre Dame, not Obama, who was at fault. That has changed. I'm encountering a lot of hostility at Obama personally for not withdrawing, especially as the controversy has mushroomed. He is being accused of everything from "no integrity" to narcissism to sheer political expediency.

Now, to be sure, I'm hearing these things largely from orthodox Catholics, meaning those who attend Mass consistently and follow the Church and its moral teachings; they are loyal to the Magisterium (the teaching body) of the Church. These are Catholics that liberals will dismissively dub "conservative Catholics," even though many of them, especially those over 60 years old, are longtime registered Democrats. Liberals don't care if these particular Catholics are angry.

That would be a mistake. Consider:

Sure, a majority (54 percent) of Catholics voted for Obama. Amazingly, a Pew poll shows an astounding fact sure to embarrass orthodox Catholics: 50 percent of Catholics favor Notre Dame's invitation to Obama. (A Rasmussen poll shows otherwise.)

But if you break down the data, the numbers are illuminating. First off, actual churchgoing Catholics voted for John McCain over Barack Obama ; likewise, the Pew poll shows that churchgoing Catholics disagree with Notre Dame's invitation. (Similar splits exist among churchgoing vs. non-churchgoing Protestants, and evangelicals vs. mainline Protestants.)

What does this mean? It means Obama gains no ground, politically, by going to Notre Dame. He preaches to the choir that supports him regardless. On the other hand, he loses big time-and, frankly, infuriates-tens of millions of faithful Catholics.

If I were a Republican Party political strategist, the Machiavellian in me would urge Obama to go to Notre Dame-to permanently divorce himself from faithful Catholic voters, especially in 2012. I wouldn't want him to withdraw.

But it looks like Obama's decision is set. He won't do what Tom Ridge did, or what Cardinal Mindszenty did. And, ultimately, Barack Obama will only hurt Notre Dame and himself.