What is a ‘strict’ Catholic stance?

Not that anyone should be surprised, but a portion of the national community that makes up Notre Dame’s supporters, alumni, students and the parents of students, are none too thrilled with the fact that President Obama will be speaking at the institution’s graduation this spring and receiving an honorary degree. Their problem is that Obama’s official policies directly contradict Catholic teaching on the subject of the sanctity of human life.

But at least according to MSNBC’s First Read, the problem is just the beliefs of those “strict” Catholics:

The point of contention? The president’s record on issues related to abortion, the majority of which clash with the strict anti-abortion stance of the Catholic Church. An online petition has sprung up urging people to voice their complaints to Father John Jenkins, president of the university.

Jenkins said in an interview with the student paper Monday that while there are clear differences between the president and the Catholic church on some issues (abortion and embryonic stem cell research), it was a great honor to have the president accept the university’s offer and that he had no plans to rescind the offer.

A majority of the student body is enthusiastic about President Obama coming to speak — he won the campus’ mock election 52.6% to 41.1% over Sen. John McCain — but an active alumni base that skews more conservative than the increasingly liberal campus has been vocal about the selection of the commencement speaker.

So the “strict” Catholics oppose the invitation to President Obama, as opposed to what other kinds of Catholics? There is an answer to that question that reporters should include in their articles. It would be interesting to see the definition attached to those Catholics. See here for Tmatt’s summary of the four types of Catholics of which reporters should be aware:

* Ex-Catholics. Solid for the Democrats. GOP has no chance.

* Cultural Catholics who may go to church a few times a year. This may be an undecided voter — check out that classic Atlantic Monthly tribes of American religion piece — depending on what is happening with the economy, foreign policy, etc. Leans to Democrats.

* Sunday-morning American Catholics. This voter is a regular in the pew and may even play some leadership role in the parish. This is the Catholic voter that is really up for grabs, the true swing voter that the candidates are after.

* The “sweats the details” Roman Catholic who goes to confession. Is active in the full sacramental life of the parish and almost always backs the Vatican, when it comes to matters of faith and practice. This is where the GOP has made its big gains in recent decades, but it is a very small slice of the American Catholic pie.

In The Los Angeles Times write-up of the controversy, there aren’t any voices from independent Catholics who support the invitation, or are at least not opposed. The Associated Press article plays the story a bit closer and resists the urge to portray this outrage as somehow surprising or a representation of some strange strict sect of Catholicism.

In another facet of the story, Notre Dame’s president says that the honorary degree is not supposed to condone his positions regarding abortion:

Notre Dame President Fr. John Jenkins says that the honorary degree “is not intended to condone or endorse his position on specific issues regarding life.” Jenkins also commented: “You cannot change the world if you shun the people you want to persuade, and if you cannot persuade them show respect for them and listen to them.”

If that is the case, what does the honorary degree endorse or condone and is this just something people should take on faith or is there a little exemption clause in the degree certificate that makes that clear? Somehow I doubt that, but it makes for nice PR cover. For example, when Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke at my alma mater Butler University in 2003, the express purpose was to recognize his life’s work and to highlight the principles by which he lived his life. Former GetReligion blogger Mark Stricherz points out that inviting Obama to speak at Notre Dame would be akin to “inviting Barry Goldwater in 1965, the year after he had opposed the Civil Rights Act.”

At least one reporter, Julia Duin of The Washington Times, managed to report that giving Obama the honorary degree will violate a policy of the U.S. Conference on Catholic Bishops:

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2004, he added, specifically forbade giving “awards, honors or platforms” to “those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles.”

It is hard to tell whether this story will pick up any steam, but the Bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend (South Bend is where Notre dame is located, Fort Wayne is the state’s second largest city), announced that he will not attend the graduation. The next shoe to drop will be whether Obama addresses the issue of the sanctity of human life in his address.

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  • Chris Bolinger

    MSNBC is mainstream? Since when?

  • http://www.freikirchen.at Wolf Paul

    Hey, Mr Pulliam, since this blog critiques the reporting of others, isn’t it very important to be accurate?

    The MSNBC piece says absolutely nothing about “strict Catholics” — the only occurrence of the word “strict” is in the phrase, “the strict anti-abortion stance of the Catholic Church” where it certainly is applicable.

    Actually, there is no adjective applied to “Catholic” or “Catholics” anywhere in the article so it seems entirely innocent of what you are suggesting :-)

  • Martha

    This is complicated for all sorts of reasons.

    First, the “honour” that they’re talking about is *not* simply the acceptance of the invitation to give the commencement speech. Notre Dame is also going to award him an honorary degree. *That’s* the honour that everyone is exercised about.

    Secondly, he’s not just any politician; he is now the President. So is it insulting the office of the President to turn him away? This is what makes it tricky.

    If he was still just Senator Obama, there would be no problem in saying “Hell, no, he shouldn’t be asked!” But he’s not just a senator anymore.

    I can see why Notre Dame asked him, seeing as how he’s going to be giving similar speeches at other universities, but given (for one thing) the Catholics he’s selected for his administration (Governor Sebelius has the accolade of a public rebuke from her bishop!), it would have been better not to.

    Or if they did invite him, definitely no honorary degree award.

    I don’t know how they’re going to get themselves out of this one; if they go ahead with the invitation, they’re practically saying “The traditional teaching of the Church is for losers” and if they rescind it now, they’re just going to look like they’re insulting the President. But whatever they do, they’ve brought it on themselves.

    If they really, honestly think that an honorary award from Notre Dame is going to make President Obama say “You know, now I come to think of it, maybe this pro-life thing is the right idea after all”, then I’ve got a nice bridge going cheap just for them.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    Wolf Paul has a point in that the phrase “strict Catholics” isn’t used by MSNBC, but the use of the word “strict” is still problematic. “Strict” is a negative word, with parental overtones. Why not “firm anti-abortion stance,” or “consistent anti-abortion stance” (after all, this is how the Vatican considers its position on sanctity-of-life issues) or, for that matter, simply “anti-abortion stance”?

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2677 dpulliam

    Good point Wolf Paul, but I think my general point still stands in the sense that some Catholics hold to the alleged “strict” Catholic belief, while others do not.

    The article uses an adjective (which Mike Hickerson appropriately points out is pejorative) to describe an institution’s long-standing position because it’s clear from the underlying facts of the article that not every Catholic holds to that position, but some do. My main point is that those positions should be explained more thoroughly rather than just assumed that every Catholic is “strict.”

  • Joe

    Who are these readers who don’t realize there is disagreements among Catholics on abortion?

  • hoosier

    The article doesn’t assume that every Catholic is strict, rather it claims that he position of the Catholic Church is strict. You can quibble with that adjective (though I really don’t see anything wrong with it) but the author doesn’t apply it to Catholics, rather to the Church’s stance. This doesn’t assume that every Catholic is strict, as you seem to suggest above. It claims that the church’s stance is strict.

    I think most readers are sophisticated enough to know that the stance of an organization as large as the Catholic Church is not necessarily shared by all who affiliate with it. If they’re not, then the author may need to start over, perhaps defining “Catholic,” “Church,” “abortion,” and “president.” Although if the audience is as unsophisticated as you seem to think, can they even read? I really think your quibble here is baseless.

  • http://www.followingthelede.blogspot.com Sabrina

    You might be interested in Catholic New Service’s blog entry:


    Lots of interesting links to read. :-)

  • Jerry

    This review is a bit simplistic. I think you’re ignoring some of the complexity of the situation. Whether or not you agree with the following, the statements add some useful perspective.

    http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/georgetown/2009/03/notre_dame_right_to_invite_obama.html discusses why Notre Dame was right to invite President Obama and how that invitation in no way is a violation of the Catholics in Political Life statement. That piece points to another piece which ends with this which indicates at at least a chunk of the outrage is political not religious:

    In 2005 I pointed out to Reilly that should Bush be invited to speak at a Catholic campus, the Society would be compelled to outrage. “Bush, you see, supports embryonic stem cell research, though his policies limit it to existing stem cell lines,” I wrote. “That’s a position directly counter to church teaching.

    “Similarly, despite his anti-abortion record, the president supports exceptions for abortion in cases of rape, incest or where the life of the mother is threatened. That alone should be enough to draw the wrath of the Virginia-based group … ’”

    Responded Reilly: “Certainly if his position is opposed to the church on those issues (stem cell research and abortion exceptions),” he would be treated “just like anyone else.”

    That, I concluded, was “more than a little hard to believe.”

    Two years later, Bush was invited by his old friend and former adviser Jim Towey, president of St. Vincent College in Pennsylvania, to give the commencement address at the small Catholic school.

    Not a peep from Reilly – a silence that says more about Reilly and company than all the “outrages” and “scandals” he manufactures and exploits.


  • Martha

    Jerry – followed your link to the “Washington Post” article, saw the byline was Thomas Reese, didn’t bother to read any further.

    The reactions I’m seeing from worked-up Catholics are not about politics but about doctrine. I’m sure there are political elements involved in some places, but then again, this whole thing involves a politician, so I’d expect that. Personally, I wouldn’t have invited President Bush either to give a speech at a Catholic school, but the piece you quote does explain that the President of the school in question was a friend of his, so there was that element of personal contact which is missing here.

    I do see why Notre Dame would like to have the President giving the commencement speech. But I also see why there are problems troubling some Catholics about honouring him.

    Just as a matter of interest, can anyone tell me if the reason he’s plain old “Thomas J. Reese” in the byline, not “Fr. Thomas Reese, S.J.” is because of the stylebook guidelines for the “Washington Post”, or did he just not bother to say he’s a priest?

  • http://willohroots.wordpress.com will hapeman

    On the local level here in Pa. there have been many tempests in quite a few tea pots over the Bishop vs. just about everybody else. It seems only bishops will be able to speak at catholic colleges, as they are the only ones that agree lock step with the church.

  • Judy Harrow

    Mike (comment #4)

    I think it’s entirely fair to say that some Catholics are “strict” in their opposition to abortion. The bishop in Brazil who excommunicated a doctor for performing a life-saving abortion on a nine-year-old rape victim (and did not excommunicate the rapist) was about as “strict” as the Saudi morality police who forced schoolgirls back into a burning building because they could not get to the cloakroom to get their abayas, wouldn’t you say?

  • Jerry

    Martha, you (or anyone else) might choose not to read his post, but unless you have a strong stomach, don’t read the follow-up posts. I skimmed them quickly and found some thoughtful ones on all sides of the issue but too often I felt like I was at a toxic waste dump.

    On the other hand, reading a few of them really increases my appreciation for the people who post here and the moderation policies that are enforced. It’s stretching the point a bit, but reading some comments there and then coming here is a bit like leaving a fetid swamp for a sun-lit forest.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2677 dpulliam

    Jerry, thank for your comment. It made my day.

  • Susan

    Funny, but yesterday I had a conversation on this same topic with a friend who left TEC, went through RCIA and joined the RCC last Easter.

    As we were discussing a controversial program at our parish, I used the term “orthodox understanding” and he interrupted me to say that using the words “traditional” or “orthodox” in describing theology and beliefs addressed in the Catechism is a mistake. The set of beliefs described in the Catechism should simply be referred to as Roman Catholic. Period. I understood his point.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Can the president of Notre Dame really be that naive?? Or that stupid??? His comment that it was a great honor for Notre Dame to have their invitation accepted by the US president certainly shows little awareness of how he and his university are being politically played. What pro-abortion politician wouldn’t jump at the chance to, in effect, help undermine pro-life Catholic teachings and aid in splitting Catholics whose heritage is pro-life back to the time of the earliest Christians?? And of course there will be no columns or comments in the MSM about this angle. Nor will there be any backgrounders that will do anything but make it look like the Catholic Church’s pro-life position is somehow a modern creation and a creation of the Vatican at that.
    As for the wisecrack comment that someday only bishops will believe the teachings of the Catholic Church.
    How about going back 1500 years or so to the time of the Arian heresy. At that time in the Eastern Catholic-Orthodox Church only the bishop St. Athanasius clung to the True Faith. And he was vindicated as most of the Christian world–including the East–finally came to believe he was correct (although, if I recall correctly,, the papacy never wavered and was a steadfast supporter of St. Athanasius through it all.) Sometimes the Holy Spirit guides the Church through lone courageous bishops such as St. John Chrysostom, St. Thomas Becket, St. John Fisher and a whole list of courageous martyred bishops. (and, although not martyred, Bishop von Galen of Munster, Germany who steadfastly opposed Hitler in the midst of pro-Nazi hysteria.)

  • dalea

    Nor will there be any backgrounders that will do anything but make it look like the Catholic Church’s pro-life position is somehow a modern creation and a creation of the Vatican at that.

    Since the mechanics of conception were only fully understood in the 1820s, the idea that life begins at conception has to be a modern idea. Aquinas had a totally different understanding of the process and a different time when life began.

    Is Notre Dame owned by the RCC or is it an independent not for profit affiliated with the RCC?

  • FW Ken

    All of the back-and-forth is well-and-good, but a simple mental trick will suffice: substitute a public figure you find appalling and imagine him/her honored by an institution you revere.

    A good statement of the problem:


    The dishonesty of Father Thomas Reese in not identifying himself as a priest, not to mention a principle in the dissenting (“liberal”) Catholic movement, is stunning. For those who don’t know, he was removed as editor of America, a dissenting journal, at the Vatican’s request. You think he might have a bone to pick?

    Thanks for the heads-up on the toxic comments under Fr. Reese’s article, but it’s not a surprise. Almost any online dissenting Catholic column will have those sort of comments under it.

    Finally, for a review of Notre Dame from a sweaty Catholic perspective, this is fairly interesting. I wonder if they will update it in view of current events, however.

  • Anna

    What about the fifth type of Catholic? The “sweats the detail” Catholic who attends weekly Mass, goes to confession, participates in “the full sacramental life of the parish” but DOES NOT agree on everything with the Vatican? This type of Catholic voted for Obama because he or she agrees most of what the president’s supports but not his pro-choice/pro-embryonic stem cell research stance.

    These Catholics do exist (I’m one of them) and doesn’t fit into any of Tmatt’s labels.

  • FW Ken

    A majority of the student body is enthusiastic about President Obama coming to speak — he won the campus’ mock election 52.6% to 41.1% over Sen. John McCain —

    I meant to comment that the results of a mock election last fall doesn’t necessarily translate into current enthusiasm. I’m sure a fair percentage of the student body is all a-swoon over the presidential appearance, but more relevant evidence might have been offered.

    Anna – would it make a difference if we dropped the loaded verbiage about “the Vatican” and said:

    but DOES NOT agree on everything in the Catechism?

  • Anna

    would it make a difference if we dropped the loaded verbiage about “the Vatican” and said:

    but DOES NOT agree on everything in the Catechism?

    It might but then that still doesn’t quite fit those that haven’t turned towards supporting the GOP.

  • Joe K

    Dalea wrote, “Since the mechanics of conception were only fully understood in the 1820s, the idea that life begins at conception has to be a modern idea. Aquinas had a totally different understanding of the process and a different time when life began.”

    You’re factually correct, but perhaps missing the point. The Church has ALWAYS taught since its beginning (from Genesis 1:27) that human life is sacred, and even abortion is prohibited in earliest Church writings (e.g. Didache). This is a theological teaching that’ll never change. However, the Church relies on science to tell her exactly WHEN human life begins. Aquinas lacked genetic understanding of conception so they used other less precise methods of guess-timating when human life began. If science were to prove that human life begins at the 3rd trimester (or whenever), then the Church would still maintain her teaching that ‘human life is sacred.’ But in 2009 biology and genetics are very clear on exactly when human life begins.

    Is Notre Dame owned by the RCC or is it an independent not for profit affiliated with the RCC?

    ND is run by a order called Congregation of Holy Cross, working in 15 countries, with their Eastern US Province located in South Bend, IN. Orders have separate jurisdiction from the diocese. Dioceses are geographically based, and Bishop D’Arcy presides over Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. Orders are mission-based and typically spread across geographies. Think of it like the Naval Base in San Diego, while located in city of San Diego and State of California, is not directly under authority of city, county or state, but rather under military which has different chain of command that ultimately leads to Washington DC. Both Orders and Dioceses are Roman Catholic and their chains of command ultimately meet at the Vatican.

  • FW Ken

    Since the mechanics of conception were only fully understood in the 1820s,

    dalea, perhaps you mean the mechanics of genetics, though Gregor Mendel was working in the 1860s. The Old Testament story of Onan suggests that people knew where babies come from for at least 3000 years. As Speaker Pelosi (or perhaps VP Biden) claimed last summer, there have been discussions about when the soul entered the unborn child. As pointed out by responsible parties at the time, that’s a technical question separate from the whether the unborn child is a human person.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2677 dpulliam

    I sense this post is becoming a place to debate theology and that’s not what this place is for. This is a warning but future posts that don’t deal with the media issues (or criticizing me) will be zapped.

  • Harris

    It does sound as if the actual struggle is internal to Notre Dame, and not with the President, per se. This internal conflict in the faith community about a presidential visit was also the subject of some controversy when President Bush came to Calvin College for its commencement.

    The controversy then (as now) revolves on the dual role of the President as both political figure and as a figure of state, the representative of the country. The honor due the leader of the country is different than the honor which may be due to the leading political figure — even if they person is one and the same.

    As to entertaining the leader of the state with whom one disagrees — didn’t Basil do something similar entertaining the Arian emperor?

  • MJBubba

    Joe K., thanks for info about Notre Dame.
    I am in full agreement with Jerry (#13). GetReligion.org is a delightfully well-mannered and thoughtful corner of the blogosphere.