From the editor’s desk
Questions of principle
4 April 2009
As President Barack Obama received the adulation of press and public in London, a very different treatment was being directed at him within the Catholic Church in the United States. He has been invited to America's senior Catholic university, Notre Dame in Indiana, both to receive an honorary doctorate of law and to give the graduation-day address. The invitation has caused a furore. It has been denounced not only by pro-life campaigning groups but also by leaders of the Catholic Church, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago to the fore, because Mr Obama is pro-choice and has authorised research involving embryonic stem cells. The cardinal, who is president of the US bishops' conference, said it was too late to withdraw the invitation but it should never have been issued and was an "extreme embarrassment". He called on Catholics to bombard Notre Dame with complaints and to protest at the event itself, which is scheduled for 17 May.
Two questions arise, both of principle. First, is it correct to regard abortion as so crucial an issue to relations between Catholics and a secular government that no other consideration carries any weight? In America that seems to be the view taken, not least by many bishops but also, in even more extreme terms, by Catholic anti-abortion campaigners. It is equivalent to saying that a president, despite representing a social revolution in relations between the races, despite having a political agenda aimed at greater social justice and equality, and despite saying he favours measures designed to cut down the need for abortion, must nevertheless be regarded as tainted by evil and shunned accordingly, because of the issue of abortion. It is not a view that would find much sympathy in most Catholic circles in Europe.
The second question is about how the Church should engage in public controversy. Does it make progress for its ideals and beliefs by symbolic boycotts and gestures of dissent, or does that merely confirm the views of the already convinced while closing the ears of those who are not? Nobody in America seriously doubts the opposition of millions of Catholics to abortion, although they probably also know that those who shout loudest have a hard-line position that is by no means shared unanimously. But if abortion is ever to be restricted by law in America, or indeed any other democratic country, it will come about by means of the democratic process and not just because bishops demand it. That means winning the debate: it means producing better arguments, which in turn means giving due weight to contrary opinions and treating opponents with civility. In a country where separation of Church and State is almost a religion in itself, anything that looks like an ecclesiastical dictum is counter-productive.
And in this case, a very selective dictum. Nobody has suggested that President Obama should be shunned because he has not promised to end the death penalty, which is also part of Catholic teaching on the sanctity of life; nor that his predecessor should have been shunned because he engaged his country in an unjust war in Iraq, where untold innocent lives were lost. It seriously damages the whole Catholic contribution to democratic politics to treat abortion not only as a black-and-white issue, with no shades of grey, but as the unique black-and-white issue that trumps all others.