Catholic leadership divided over Obama’s Notre Dame speech, expert suggests

Notre Dame University’s decision to invite President Obama to deliver the university’s commencement address on Sunday has sparked strong protests from groups who disagree with Obama’s stand on abortion and stem cell research. Despite condemnation of Obama’s speech by a number of prominent American bishops, the Vatican may be more interested in moderation and conciliation in its dealings with Obama, suggests Frank K. Flinn, a close observer of religious politics and author of the Encyclopedia of Catholicism (2007).

Flinn, Ph.D., an adjunct professor of religious studies at Washington University in St. Louis, offers his comments below:

Both Raymond Burke and Robert Carlson, the former and newly-appointed archbishops of St. Louis, have denounced Notre Dame University for inviting President Barack Obama to give the commencement address at Notre Dame University. Both claim that Obama promotes an “anti-life and anti-family agenda.”

Frank Flinn

On the other hand, Giuseppe Fiorentino, writing in the semi-official Catholic newspaper L’Ossrvatore Romano (May 6) about Obama’s first 100 days in office, struck a markedly conciliatory tone. Noting the president’s great communication skills and message of hope, the author says that Obama moves with caution, that his guidelines for embryonic stem cell research are contained, and that his proposed Pregnant Women Support Act aims at limiting the number of abortions.

Who is speaking for the Roman Catholic Church here? The labyrinth of Vatican ways is hard to wend one’s way through, but, if I were to put my money on a horse, I would choose L’Osservatore Romano. True, the Vatican often speaks out of both sides of its mouth. The recent flip-flops on Islam and violence, on the Lefebvrist bishop’s denial of the Holocaust, etc., show that Benedict XVI has a shaky hand on the rudder of the ecclesiastical barque. Nonetheless, L’Osservatore Romano is in constant contact with papal sentiments.

The Vatican has to know that, following the disaster of the Bush administration, American Catholics returned to the Democratic Party and voted for Obama by 54 percent. An even greater number approve of him today. Then, too, the Vatican has consistently seen the Iraqi War as falling far short of the criteria needed for a just war. The very bishops who holler loudest about the abortion issue are the very ones who said nothing about the hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, including fetuses within women’s wombs, who died and continue to die in the Iraqi horror.

The American anti-abortion bishops speak so loudly that they confuse ordinary Catholics. Laypeople often are ignorant of the fact that the church does allow for indirect abortions, for example, a pregnancy in the fallopian tubes. The bishops inveigh so vehemently against the use of mechanical or chemical means to thwart pregnancy that they seem unaware that the church-approved method of birth control, called rhythm, is also aimed a thwarting pregnancy. They have been so distracted with sexual matters among the laity, that they neglected the deeply serious issues of unjust warfare and clerical pedophilia. Now they are harping against the very president that their own members helped elect to the highest office in the United States.

My guess is that the Vatican will allow these bishops their say but that Rome is choosing the path of moderation and conciliation. That may be a forked tongue, but Rome wants good relations with the popular president of the United States. Archbishop Burke alienated a significant segment of the Catholic population in St. Louis before he was elevated upstairs. His successor stands in danger of repeating the performance. Meanwhile, I believe that Vatican has said to Notre Dame, “Go ahead.”

Editor’s Note: Flinn can be reached for interview at his off-campus phone: 314-725-0629.