The meaning of Notre Dame

The Washington Post has a front-page story about President Obama’s upcoming commencement speech at Notre Dame. Reporters Peter Slevin and Jacqueline Salmon display the usual amount of Obama cheerleading plus a considerable amount of (willful?) ignorance.

Slevin and Salmon treat the questions raised by devout Catholics, including at least 74 Catholic Bishops, as an intrusion by outside agitators upon “the bountiful lawns” of the University and the “peace of a sunny graduation-week. . .” Indeed, the front-page headline states that these outsiders are “swarm[ing] Notre Dame.” The reporters also assert that the protests come at a time when the antiabortion movement is in disarray thanks in part to the fact that Obama “has sought to ease tensions over an issue that has dogged politicians on the right and left for nearly three decades.”

This claim, or rather this Obama talking point, is unsupported by evidence that the president has done anything meaningful to “ease tensions” over the abortion issue. The fact is that Obama is a more extreme supporter of abortion “rights” than any of his predecessors. Indeed, he has gone so far as to strike down the Bush administration’s ban on giving federal money to international groups that perform abortions. This makes him, in the words of the Bishop of Fort Wayne, the first president to bring “the American government. . .into supporting direct destruction of innocent human life.”

In the face of these facts, unmentioned by the Post reporters even though they feature prominently in the debate over Obama’s visit to Notre Dame, Slevin and Salmon assure us that Obama’s “domestic policy staff is discussing ways to reduce unintended pregnancies and strengthen adoption.” The notion that these frequently invoked “alternatives” to banning abortion represent something new in the abortion debate, or that they somehow render the prior contentiousness an arguement over “false choices,” is laughable. So is the suggestion that they have the anti-abortion movement reeling.

Slevin and Salmon claim that “most Notre Dame students say they welcome Obama” (at least that is what the carry-over headline on page A-4 states). This may well be the case, but the story provides no basis for accepting that claim, much less the suggestion that most students think the invitation to Obama was a good idea. One student says a clear majority of her friends favor the visit; another says her friends are split. (The latter, a 20 year-old, says she thinks the visit will be “amazing”) The reporters don’t cite any survey on the matter; nor does it appear that they talked to enough students to have formed a valid opinion about student sentiment.

Slevin and Salmon save their most biased, most ignorant reporting for last. They write:

The storm enveloping Nortre Dame was not matched when the university awarded honorary degrees to [Jimmy] Carter and to. . .Gerald Ford who both supported abortion rights. Nor was it foretold in election results, when Obama won a majority of Catholics.

But the storm was foretold by the fact that, in 2001 (long after the days of Carter and Ford), the U.S. Catholic Bishops declared:

The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.

I realize that the views of the U.S. Catholic Bishops are inconsequential when compared to those of the 20 year-old girl who thinks Obama’s visit will be “amazing.” But Slevin and Salmon have written a story that purports to be, in part, about religion. So they might have mentioned the position of the U.S. Catholic Bishops before suggesting that the reaction of religious Catholics to Obama’s visit came out-of-the-blue.

Obama’s visit to Notre Dame looks like a calculated effort to drive a wedge between the leaders of the Church, who are too socially conservative for Obama’s taste, and ordinary Catholics. The fact that the visit will spoil the graduation for lots of Notre Dame students didn’t matter to the White House.

With the stakes this high, it’s no wonder that partisans on both sides, including the Washington Post, have had much to say about the matter. This explains, but does not excuse, the reporting of Slevin and Salmon.


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