Notre Dame did not anticipate the level of criticism it is getting for its invitation to Obama, criticism not only from grass-root pro-life activists, but also from bishops and cardinals. Those who defend the invitation have been rather lame. They claim that the invitation does not show an approval of Obama’s positions on life; this may be true, but it certainly shows that Notre Dame does not regard Obama’s positions as beyond the pale. Notre Dame would never have invited George Wallace as a commencement speaker. Obama knows very well that his presence at Notre Dame is a political plus, demonstrating that the leading Catholic university in the U. S. finds his positions at least tolerable, even as he dismantles conscience protections for health workers – many of them Catholic – who object to being involved in abortions.
Notre Dame claims that the invitation is an opening to dialogue. But a commencement speech is not a debate. A debate would have been a wonderful idea, and Obama would never have accepted it. It would have been political poison.
But the primary defense is that Obama’s visit will acknowledge Notre Dame’s importance. Over at the dotCommoweal site, Margeret Steinfels and others do not want the Catholic Church to become a sect, a ghetto, marginalized. The proffering of the invitation to Obama and the joy at its acceptance were a sign of social status insecurity. Would Harvard have squealed for glee if the President accepted an invitation to speak, or Oxford if the Prime Minister came, or the Sorbonne if Sarkozy came? No. These universities rightfully regard mere politicians as beneath them in status.
Evelyn Waugh described the Catholic Church in America as a tribal institution of the Irish, and much of its strength lay in its helping immigrants establish themselves in America. The church was an instrument of social climbing. The process continues: everything that keeps back advancement in society is abolished, ignored, or downgraded.
Both sides of the Obama controversy, however, demonstrate a Catholic tendency that does no good to the Church: the tendency to see everything in terms of will and obedience, that is, in the context of a voluntaristic approach to morality. Attempts to find a way in canon law to block the invitation are one sign of this attitude; but the defenses of Obama also demonstrate the influence of voluntarism.
The defense runs as such: Obama does not share Catholic beliefs about protecting human life; therefore he is not doing anything wrong when he advances abortion and experimentation on human embryos. We should therefore respect his conscience.
In one of his books, Cardinal Ratzinger showed the fallacy of this. He recounts a conversation with an unnamed theologian (I suspect Hans Küng) about conscience. The theologian said it was well that Europeans had an invincible ignorance about sexual morality. If they accepted Christian teaching they would still fornicate and commit adultery, but as it was they now did these actions without guilt, because they were acting according to their consciences.
Ratzinger asked if the same principle applied to the SS men who killed Jews because they thought they were doing a good act in cleansing Europe of a Jewish poison. The theologian replied. Yes, the SS men were acting in good conscience and were guiltless. Ratzinger thought there was something very wrong with this approach.
Briefly, the position of Ratzinger (and of Aquinas and the Fathers) is that God commands or forbids things through a promulgated moral law because those things are good or bad in themselves. Even if one acts in ignorance of the moral law, one does evil, even if it without the guilt of a conscious transgression of a promulgated law. As the Psalmist prays: From my unknown faults deliver me, O Lord.