Is Abortion Just Another “Issue”?
By Christopher Manion [from the Wanderer]
The more one pages through Charles Rice’s new book, “What Happened to Notre Dame,” the more Obama’s triumphal visit there last May emerges as a turning point, not only for the university, but for Catholic education and the American Catholic Church. No longer could the university pretend that the “Fighting Irish” would fight for the lives of the unborn. Instead, the event sent the message that Notre Dame had demoted abortion from the status of an intrinsic evil to just one of many increasingly obscure threads in the “seamless garment” that Obama’s favorite archbishop, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, conjured up long ago to diminish the relative importance – indeed, the horror -- of abortion in America, reducing it to a political issue that must be considered alongside many others.
Rice confronts that dialectic head-on, using the lens of Cardinal Ratzinger’s “Dictatorship of Relativism.” I wonder, do Notre Dame students read Orwell any more? Because the truth is right there in Animal Farm: in the seamless garment, “all issues are relative, but some issues are more relative than others.” Professor Rice drives the point home: “Could you possibly imagine Fr. Jenkins … honoring a public official who persistently expresses his approval of the Holocaust or legally enforced racial segregation, because of that official’s stand on the economy or health care?”
Come on, class, let’s not always see the same hands.
Relativism nonetheless has its supporters in the Church. While some eighty-three American bishops criticized Notre Dame’s decision to honor the most pro-abortion president in history, a couple of hundred were silent. Last month, one of their number, Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe, criticized his colleagues who were critical of Father Jenkins. According to the National Catholic Reporter, “Sheehan said the Catholic community risks isolating itself from the rest of the country and that refusing to talk to a politician or refusing communion because of a difference on a single issue was counterproductive.” Archbishop Sheehan, who said he had once worked under Cardinal Bernardin, called the bishops’ criticism of Notre Dame “hysterical.”
I am grateful to Archbishop Sheehan for candidly revealing that he thinks not theologically, but politically – taking politically in its post-modernist, relativist, and reductionist sense. Abortion is reduced to a pesky “single issue” -- oppose it forthrightly and you “risk isolating yourself”! The good archbishop pretends that those 83 bishops “refuse to talk” to pro-abortion politicians, a canard that sounds pretty “hysterical” in itself (He does not complain that pro-abort politicians might not have ears to hear). But if that’s what Abp. Sheehan is against, what is he for? The Reporter again: “He said his approach – whether dealing with civic officials or church members, relied heavily on collaboration, a technique he said he learned from the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago.”
Collaboration or Cooperation?
Rice recognizes that collaboration is a dangerous road. Regarding Obama’s support of cloning, and then killing, human embryos for stem-cell research, he writes, “the experiments performed by Nazi doctors on concentration camp prisoners were unimaginative and primitive by comparison. By conferring Notre Dame’s highest honors on the national leader who is setting the stage for such an atrocity, Notre Dame’s officers acted like ‘good Germans’ who were submissive to their Führer.”
In German, they called those folks “Kollaborateur” -- collaborators. How does Archbishop Sheehan counsel us to prevent his (apparently innocuous) collaboration from becoming cooperation? He does not say.
His positivism persists: Abp. Sheehan next claims that “the majority” of bishops agree with him. Perhaps that is true. He complains: “We’d be like the Amish, you know, kind of isolated from society, if we kept pulling back because of a single issue.”
Why the Amish, Your Excellency? Why not the English martyrs?
Darn those silly little “single issues”! But not all of them: near the end of his life, Cardinal Bernardin was very concerned about the precipitous decline of voluntary financial support for the Church from the laity. Could that explain why the USCCB has turned to the government, which has given their educational, charitable, and medical institutions tens of billions in taxpayer dollars? Didn’t Cardinal Bernardin ever warn Archbishop Sheehan that the issue of money might tempt the bishops not only to collaborate, but to cooperate, with abortionists? Was government money a “single issue” that the Church just couldn’t refuse?
Bravo Bishop D’Arcy
One prelate who takes his job more seriously than money or politics is my hometown bishop, John M. D’Arcy. After Rice’s book went to press, D’Arcy penned “A pastoral reflection on the controversy at Notre Dame” for America magazine – perhaps placing it in that liberal journal to make sure that folks at Notre Dame would see it. Bishop D’Arcy gets right to the point: “Does a Catholic university have the responsibility to give witness to the Catholic faith and to the consequences of that faith by its actions and decisions—especially by a decision to confer its highest honor? If not, what is the meaning of a life of faith?”
Bishop D’Arcy finds much to applaud in the students of Notre Dame: “I attended the Baccalaureate Mass the day before graduation, for the 25th time, speaking after Holy Communion, as I always do. Then I led an evening Rosary at the Grotto with students, adults and a number of professors. We then went to a chapel [the largest, in Dillon Hall] on campus. It was packed for a whole night of prayer and Eucharistic adoration.” (By the way, Fr. Richard McBrien, Notre Dame’s notorious critic of popes past and present, recently wrote that because today’s Catholics “are so literate or even well-educated … there is little or no need for [such] extraneous Eucharistic devotions.”) About Fr. McBrien’s colleagues in the Theology Department, Bishop D’Arcy makes a stunning, possibly promising observation: “It is notable that a vast majority has been willing to seek and accept the mandatum from the local bishop [D’Arcy],” he writes.
For Bishop D’Arcy, l’affaire Notre Dame is not yet over. “I firmly believe that the board of trustees must take up its responsibility afresh, with appropriate study and prayer. They also must understand the seriousness of the present moment,” he writes. It is up to board to address “the situation that so sundered the church last spring.” Well, since Land O’Lakes, that board has been pretty proud of its independence from the hierarchy. No matter -- Bp. D’Arcy makes his role clear: “The bishop must be concerned that Catholic institutions do not succumb to the secular culture, making decisions that appear to many, including ordinary Catholics, as a surrender to a culture opposed to the truth about life and love.”
Bishop D’Arcy then puts three questions to the board of Notre Dame: “(1) Do you consider it a responsibility in your public statements, in your life as a university and in your actions, including your public awards, to give witness to the Catholic faith in all its fullness? (2) What is your relationship to the church and, specifically, to the local bishop and his pastoral authority as defined by the Second Vatican Council? (3) Finally, a more fundamental question: Where will the great Catholic universities search for a guiding light in the years ahead? Will it be the Land O’Lakes Statement or Ex Corde Ecclesiae?”
In his introduction to Rice’s book, Professor Alfred Freddoso observes that Notre Dame invited Obama thinking it “could reap the great public relations benefits of a presidential visit, once it survived what it undoubtedly expected to be a short-lived protest by the local bishop.” Clearly Notre Dame got it wrong. Those questions are not going away: Bishop D’Arcy is waiting for answers.
[Charles Rice's book is pubished by Saint Augustine's Press