Monday, May 18, 2009

Notre Dame and the power of words

Well, it's finally over. President Obama gave the commencement address at Notre Dame, where the administration welcomed, coddled, and lauded him despite his pro-abortion voting record. Personally, I'm rather sick of the story. My immediate impulse is sympathy with the student body whose special day has been tainted by controversy. I know what it is like when your college president invites a media firestorm by messing with religious identity.

Of course I am also dismayed that a Catholic University's president make a decision protested by 70+ of the country's bishops. Mary Ann Glendon gets major points in my book for turning down the Latare Medal, thereby refusing to be a pawn in ND President Fr. Jenkins' Catholic identity fiasco. Being the token pro-lifer on the dais, responsible for balancing out whatever the President said, would have been a burden, not an honor.

By and large, President Obama did what he does best - he said lots of pretty, comforting, even inspiring things in the hopes that people would like him. He plugged his usual agenda of "Let's all lend a hand and be one big happy family." Literally: "In short, we must find a way to live together as one human family. " I find it patronizing that he calls embryonic stem-cell research opponents "admirable," not daring to clarify that he also thinks we are "wrong."

His arguements reinforced my impression that pandering is what Obama does best. Even if he disagrees with you, he'll reword his campaign website to make it seem better. He'll promise NARAL he'll sign FOCA the minute he's in office, and then put that bill on the back burner. (If a politician did that to the Pro-Life movement he'd never hear the end of it.) I was reminded of what good old Professor Tiefel's catch-phrase: "No one gives up a good word!" Obama know this, too. That's why he called for "Open hearts. Open minds. Fair minded words." Who could disagree with such pretty, comforting statements? You don't know exactly what they mean, but they sure sound better than "hard-hearted" and "unfair."

People on both sides of the ND controversy chose their words carefully, too. The NYT's icky commencement article decided that "heckler" was the best word for those who disagreed with our pretty, comforting leader. Those bloody images of mutilated infants outside campus? They were only "fetus pictures." Sounds nearly sterile.
A few of these "hecklers" opted for forceful words, telling Obama exactly what they thought of him. "Stop killing our children!" Did calling a spade a spade rattle the President's conscience? Maybe. I liked American Papist's Twitter observation that he has never seen Obama look less happy than when giving that speech.

At times I wonder if such forceful moral condemnation is effective. Moral outrage at abortion is so often repeated, it has become commonplace. To most Americans, abortion is something they rarely encounter directly, so cries of "baby killer" do seem like hysterical caricatures. I don't know how someone could see one of those bloody baby pictures and not be disgusted by abortion, but apparently they can. Does the Pro-Life movement need to expand its vocabulary?

The way I see it, revulsion at President Obama's fluffy doublespeak about the Golden Rule and fairness is blinding Pro-Lifers to potential progress. Obama's proposals are not all junk; what's wrong with "making adoption more available, and providing care and support for women who do carry their child to term"? If Roe v. Wade were overturned tomorrow, the cultural, moral, and economic issues that lead women to abortion would still exist. If we want women to choose life, we need to make adopting a child or obtaining maternal medical care less difficult. Let's encourage America to embrace loving solutions to the challenges of pregnancy. We are Pro-Life, not just anti-death.


MC said...

Hi, Sarah-

It's funny how our views have converged over time. I realized a few months ago that when we reference abortion in the Prayers of the Faithful, we don't pray for the repeal of a Supreme Court decision. We pray "for an end to abortion," which necessarily involves an end to the inequalities and evils that lead people to make that awful choice.

As much as I scoff at Obama's language of consensus, I've found that dialogue with less enlightened friends does depend on acknowledging the difference between overturning a piece of legislation and creating a better world. I think that kind of 'family' of people who think that way is what we should really be after.

Can you tell the semester's over and I have brain cells to spare? Hope you are well.

Sarah said...

Thanks for sharing your extra brain cells with me, MC! I agree about the importance of dialogue. Some of my most memorable conversations at WM were with "less enlightened friends," who had never had Catholic beliefs explained to them. They were very receptive to honest, respectful dialogue.
And yes, I am well. I'm bracing myself for grad school insanity to begin in July!

Kristina said...

If you're so sick of the story, why were you still thinking about it and writing about it the next day?

The decision was made and the invitation extended -before- the 70+ bishops began writing and speaking out (often times in very unnecessarily harsh, critical, and plain uncharitable ways). For years and years and years the University has honored the President in this special way. It's a gesture of good will. It's a way to say "hey, good work!" And further, "hey, we don't agree on every point, but let's take what we do agree on and run with it!"

Mary Ann Glendon was presented with a huge honor and a once in a lifetime opportunity to address the Church and the President. She made an unfortunate mistake by passing up this chance to defend life in the public eye.

The University of Notre Dame is in no identity fiasco. The University is more catholic and Catholic today than it was 3 months ago or however long this has been going on. Because opening doors and welcoming people in for honest, respectful dialogue is what we do, like JC taught us. This is how hearts are chaged, through charity and respect.

If the President cared so much about being liked, he wouldn't have accepted the invitation to speak at Notre Dame's commencement and accept the honorary degree. Because a *lot* of people liked him a *lot* less for that!! Why do you find it patronzing that President Obama calls ESCR opponents "admirable?" The point he was making was that there are always, -always- two sides to every story-- ESCR looks a lot different to a parent of a child with a disease that could be relieved by ESCR than it does to you and me. There's nothing patronizing about calling our conviction "admirable." That is extremely honest and respectful, two traits of dialogue you appear to really appreciate, implied in your response to MC. The President did a good thing on Sunday addressing the abortion issue ("We're not going to shy away from things that are uncomfortable sometimes."). He could have not even mentioned the controversy surrounding his visit. But that isn't our President, and I am proud to have a President who faces his demons so to speak, and doesn't beat around the bush.

What President Obama had to say is true, and there is no denying that. He was not pandering or trying to paint a prettier picture. He was honest and respectful. Just like he was honest and respectful when he reviewed his campaign website and had it edited to more clearly reflect his views. The change he mentions was brought on by a doctor who questioned the wesbite's claim that the President would "right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman's right to choose." This was written by a member of his campaign staff, and once brought to his attention, the President realized that it in fact did not represent his views, and so he had it changed. That was a respectable move! Not a way of pandering and attempting to keep everyone happy and be liked.

Challenging people to face the issues in open dialogue is far from "pretty and comforting." Open, honest dialoge is scary because it makes people and issues (and hearts!) vulnerable to change. There's nothing at all comfortable about that, and I'm excited to have a President willing to really wrestle with these issues and work to find that common ground so we can all start making progress.

Kristina said...


The President addressed FOCA being put "on the back burner" in his 100 Days press conference. He stated there, plain and simple, "...the freedom of choice act is not my highest legislative priority." (Thank God for that!) And further, "... I think that the most important thing we can do to tamp down some of the anger surrounding this issue is to focus on those areas that we can agree on. And that's where I'm going to focus." And to do this he said, "...And so I've got a task force within the Domestic Policy Council in the West Wing of the White House that is working with groups both in the pro-choice camp and in the pro-life camp to see if we can arrive at some consensus on that." The ball is rolling.

The truth is we disagree, the President and the Catholic Church, on this aspect of being Pro-Life. An important aspect, yes, but -one- of -many- points of the movement (womb to tomb). There are many more things we (Catholic Church and Obama) agree on than disagree, and that is fact. It is fair and honest to say both sides would like to see fewer abortions. This is a big piece we have in common, and rather than continuing to beat this issue into the ground, name-calling and slandering and being incredibly not-helpful and disrespectful, we must focus instead on this common ground. We are wasting valuable time and energy. We must join forces in working on those issues on which we do agree, because, as our President points out: "Moreover, no one person, or religion, or nation can meet these challenges alone. Our very survival has never required greater cooperation and greater understanding among all people from all places than at this moment in history." President Jenkins and the University of Notre Dame did us (re: all pro-lifers) a huge favor in opening the door and extending an invitation for open, honest, and respectful dialogue.

Sarah said...


Mostly I am sick of all the hand-wringing coverage of "Notre Shame," wishing the bishops would collectively smite Fr. Jenkins. This story is going to be a big deal in conservative Catholic circles for a while I think, so I felt like I needed to process my opinions on it.

I'm still not sure how I feel about Obama's use of "admirable." What exactly does he admire? Our willingness to hold moral values that he finds too strict? Then again, I can respect ESCR advocates' concern for afflicted people it might help, so you have a point there.

I still question the appropriateness of an honorary degree to a public figure with such an anti-life voting record. But I don't really have a problem with Obama speaking at a Catholic university. I like your point that it may have been an unpleasant experience for him. Of course, he did also get said degree plus a standing ovation, but he was forced to address his views on abortion in a direct way.

Thanks for your respectful dialogue :-)