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Matthew V. Storin

Church and state; Obama and Notre Dame

By Matthew V. Storin
May 17, 2009
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IN JULY OF 1960, I was 17 and excited about two things: that I would be attending the University of Notre Dame and that my fellow Massachusetts Irish Catholic, John F. Kennedy, was about to be nominated as the Democratic candidate for president.

But even in the bubble of my Irish Catholic neighborhood and schools in Springfield, I knew that being Catholic in those days carried a bit of a smudge when you entered the wider world. So I was not surprised when JFK found it necessary to discuss his religion in a major speech in September.

The Democratic nominee told a group of Protestant ministers in Houston: "I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant, nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope, the National Council of Churches, or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all."

Five decades later the nation has another young, inspiring president, Barack Obama, who will speak at Notre Dame's commencement today and receive an honorary doctor of laws degree. Many leaders of the Catholic Church are in a crimson rage about his appearance here because of his support of stem-cell research and a woman's right to choose abortion. The bishop of Kansas City, the Rev. Robert W. Finn, predicted that the Rev. John I. Jenkins, president of the university, would ultimately be fired for inviting Obama. Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York City condemned Notre Dame even as he invited Obama to sit in an honored place at his installation in St. Patrick's Cathedral last month (Obama did not attend, but four leading pro-choice politicians from New York were seated in a front pew).

A number of antiabortion activists have answered the bishops' call, and plan to display graphic photos of fetuses trailing airplanes overhead and on the sides of trucks around South Bend.

The campus of Notre Dame proclaims Catholicism from nearly every brick. Antiabortion sentiment is not unanimous but recognized as the default position for students, faculty, and staff. Yet Notre Dame aspires to be a great research university, is governed by lay trustees, and tries to balance its religious character with engagement of the real world.

The 70 or so bishops who have spoken out against Obama's appearance may or may not realize how their comments could damage the academic reputation of the most prominent Catholic university in America. Notre Dame is rated among the top 20 research universities by US News & World Report. Such a standing would be destroyed if Jenkins is fired, which is unlikely. Still, there are suspicions about Catholic universities within the elite precincts of higher education.

Even their critics would not expect the American bishops to alter their principles regarding abortion. But what are they doing, thumbing their noses at JFK and mucking around in the nation's politics? Just imagine the worst - if there were a violent reaction to Obama's Notre Dame visit by antiabortion extremists. Where would that leave the Church's hierarchy, already staggered by the sexual abuse scandals?

From my own campus conversations, I predict that Obama will be enthusiastically welcomed by nearly everyone he encounters at Notre Dame today. But nearly 49 years after JFK made his eloquent case for separating church and state, Catholics are being told to give up their holistic judgment about political candidates and issues, and bow to the bishops' will on abortion, a topic that barely came up during the 2008 campaign.

Matthew V. Storin, who was editor of The Boston Globe from 1993 to 2001, teaches journalism at Notre Dame.

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