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Obama at Notre Dame: An Opportunity We Should Not Waste

Could his controversial invitation be a blessing in disguise for pro-lifers?

by
Elizabeth Scalia

Bio

April 7, 2009 - 12:00 am

I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants.”
Deuteronomy 30:19

As an Illinois state senator, Barack Obama voted twice against a measure similar in intent to the unanimously approved 2002 federal Born-Alive Infants Protection Act, which provides medical assistance to living children born during attempted abortions.

President Obama’s 100% NARAL rating and his quick move to fund overseas abortions and embryonic stem cell research suggest that the president, if challenged by Moses to “choose life,” would politely demur. Given his anti-life positions, Obama’s acceptance of an invitation to speak at what is arguably America’s preeminent Catholic university has created an uproar.

Several bishops have argued well against the invitation, and Bishop John D’Arcy, of Fort Wayne and South Bend, has said he will not attend the event. For many pro-life Catholics, myself included, the thought of President Obama addressing the upcoming commencement exercises at Notre Dame just scalds.

It scalds, but as my email fills up with angry press releases from various pro-life groups and with appeals to sign anti-Obama petitions, I find all the fire-breathing just a bit scalding, as well.

I understand and support the duty of Catholic bishops to register strong disapproval of the president’s anti-life positions, and I further believe that teaching the truth is always imperative, but Catholic universities have never been intellectual ghettos, offering only narrow exposure to ideas. On the contrary, Catholic universities have been bastions of rigorous debate with the application of reason triumphant over trends, sentiments, or policies. Because I believe that, and because I believe in the rightness of the Catholic position on life and the ability of the Holy Spirit to use surprising people and circumstances to do God’s will, I keep thinking, “Why are the Catholics approaching all of this with outrage and apparent fear, instead of confidence in battle?”

The current administration has famously quipped “never let a good crisis go to waste.” Well, Catholics might take a page from the president’s book and see this situation as less a “crisis” than an opportunity.

Powers and principalities have always held human life cheap, and throughout history the Catholic Church has passionately, correctly, and consistently preached on the sanctity of life, at every stage. In an age where the human embryo is exploited in the name of science, where enlightened conceit presumes to judge another’s “quality” of life and socialized medicine betrays an instinct to put a healthy bottom line before a struggling life, the church’s unwavering insistence for life could stand to be voiced anew and heard with fresh ears. The publicity surrounding Notre Dame’s invitation to Obama is gifting the church with a teachable moment; smart churchmen and women should take this opportunity to speak the pro-life position in a loving and pastoral manner that depends less on intense sloganeering and more on patient exposition.

Who lives and who dies, the intrinsic value of human worth, and the undeniable force of love that exists within the mystery of a life wholly lived should never have become — for nearly 40 years — the stuff of placards and bumper-sticker speak; the matter is too profound and too exquisitely messy for such reduction. Abortion rights supporters stopped listening to the argument for life after they saw their hundredth “Abortion Kills Children” sign, and eyeroll-inducing demands that rosaries be taken off of ovaries never did persuade a pro-lifer away.

The argument for life, though more urgent than ever, has grown stagnant for too many, and both battle-weary sides are too pinched and irritable to tolerate more of the same.

Neither Notre Dame nor Barack Obama should claim surprise at the resistance to his speaking there — and an argument could be made that a president who wholeheartedly endorses bench-created law is a dubious choice for an honorary law degree. But the Catholics and bishops who are registering their disapproval have before them a chance to work with the Holy Spirit, by trusting that same Spirit to use events in ways we may not immediately understand — for God’s purpose — and by praying for wisdom, guidance, and, yes, a loving temperament to their instruction.

This event is not the end of the world and it is not the end of the story — as we see in Deuteronomy, the battle for life over death has been raging for 4,000 years — but perhaps Obama at Notre Dame could be the beginning of the pro-life Catholic Church articulating its authoritative teaching in a manner so calm, so pastoral, and so attractive that others may be enticed to finally listen and that hearts may begin to turn. I pray that it is so.

Elizabeth Scalia is a contributing writer to First Things Magazine and the blogger known as The Anchoress.
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