Busted Halo
feature: politics & culture
May 13th, 2009

They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Denunciation

Notre Dame, Obama and the Church in Culture


ndinsideFor some it was the shot heard round the world. When Cardinal Francis George got up to preach on a cold Saturday evening more than a decade ago his message was even more bracing than the Chicago weather outside Old St. Pat’s church. “Liberal Catholicism is an exhausted project” he said. “Essentially a critique, even a necessary critique at one point in our history, it is now parasitical on a substance that no longer exists. It has shown itself unable to pass on the faith in its integrity and is inadequate, therefore, in fostering the joyful self-surrender called for in Christian marriage, in consecrated life, in ordained priesthood.”

It was a sermon that stung many in the congregation who had walked over from a nearby hotel where the National Center for the Laity (NCL) had been sponsoring a large conference on the Church in the 21st Century. This all occurred during the Paleolithic age of the internet when human activity was still primarily reported on by editors at print publications or producers at TV networks. The dawn of the blogosphere was still ages away — information evolutionists place it sometime in late 2001 — so we were spared the wildfire of invective, accusation, incrimination and virtual excommunication that characterizes much of the scorched-earth blogologue among Catholics today. Sadly the same cannot be said for the current controversy regarding President Obama’s invitation to speak at Notre Dame, which has ignited an ugly — and too-often anonymous — call and response in the fractious choir of Catholic punditry.

Background noise

I was there that night listening to the Cardinal in a pew at the back of Old St. Pat’s, but I have to confess that, selfishly, my overriding emotion was simply relief that my presentation at the NCL conference that afternoon had gone smoothly. I had been asked to give a short talk on how I was able to reconcile my life as a secular musician and singer/songwriter with my Catholic faith. I had never addressed a religious group before and I had been struggling for weeks to articulate why my vocation — and the music that had inspired it (The Clash, Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan, REM, etc.) — wasn’t at odds with my faith. The approach I finally settled on was to describe how, though I was raised a Catholic, my first experience of “Truth” had come through music. As I grew older, I gradually realized that the glimpse of transcendent truth I had experienced through the arts in general was of a piece with the same “Truth” that is expressed in faith.

Sure, I was aware of — and often sympathetic to — what Cardinal George referred to as “liberal Catholicism,” but a bigger part of me felt like the fight between “liberals and conservatives” was background noise in my own battle to make sense of faith in the world. Ten years later, the dynamic tension between culture and faith on which I focused my talk has not only become essential to my own belief, it has been the source of its deepening.

For many self-proclaimed “spiritual but not religious” Americans, their negative experience of religious institutions frequently has more to do with the tone of our message than the content of the faith. Trust me, if the tone isn’t right, they’ll never even get to the content.

Five of those past ten years I’ve been at the helm of BustedHalo.com and if my tenure here has convinced me of anything it’s that simplistic categories like liberal and conservative aren’t helpful. In fact they are meaningless to the vast majority of spiritual seekers — Catholic and non-Catholic alike — who make up much of our readership, and who, studies show, constitute an enormous chunk of self-proclaimed “spiritual but not religious” Americans.  For many of these people, the experience of religious institutions has rarely been positive, and the stark choice between “God” and “the world” is a false one. The tragedy is that their negative experience frequently has more to do with the tone of our message than the content of the faith. Trust me, if the tone isn’t right, they’ll never even get to the content.

All cart and no horse

My experience with many of these seekers has also taught me that Cardinal George’s assertion that — in terms of faith — “you can’t pass on a critique” is essentially true. It’s not that discussions about mandatory priestly celibacy and the like aren’t valid, they just aren’t particularly persuasive to the huge number of people who already believe that spirituality and religion are not just antagonistic, but mutually exclusive. For these seekers, “inside baseball” institutional arguments aren’t simply putting the cart before the horse; they’re all cart and no horse.

The controversy surrounding Obama at Notre Dame that rages on among Catholics has made that point painfully clear. Admittedly, as a Georgetown graduate, my first thought was, “If Notre Dame is no longer sufficiently Catholic to do this, what institution is?” Initially, those who made the distinction between inviting the pro-choice President to speak and giving him an honorary degree seemed like a good compromise, until I discovered that in 2007 Pope Benedict himself honored the twice-divorced, pro-choice French President Nicholas Sarkozy by bestowing the title of honorary canon of the Basilica of St. John Lateran. Even pro-choice Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico was honored by the Pope in Rome this past April on the occasion of his state abolishing the death penalty.

Are we now more Catholic than the pope? Are we incapable of sharing a stage with those we are in disagreement with?

Are we now more Catholic than the pope? Are we incapable of sharing a stage with those we are in disagreement with? Have we grown — as the former New York State Capital Defender Kevin Doyle has said — too comfortable in our bunkers?

Have we finally become all cart and no horse?

It is difficult to make the case for the relevance of institutional faith communities to spiritual seekers when their overriding exposure to religion involves internecine fights about who it is acceptable to be in dialogue with. We sound like fiddles competing to be in tune while Rome burns all around us.

If Cardinal George was correct 10 years ago — and I believe he was — in telling “liberal Catholics” that you can’t pass on a critique, then I also believe Bishop Blase Cupich’s warning to American bishops during the 2008 elections was equally necessary and applies to all of us now: “Keep in mind a prophecy of denunciation quickly wears thin, and it seems to me what we need is a prophecy of solidarity, with the community we serve and the nation that we live in.”

The Author : Bill McGarvey
Bill McGarvey is co-author of Busted Halo’s Freshman Survival Guide. Bill was editor-in-chief of Busted Halo for six year. In addition to having written extensively on the topics of culture and faith for NPR, Commonweal, America, The Tablet (in London), Factual (Spain), Time Out New York, and Book magazine, McGarvey is a singer/songwriter whose music has been critically acclaimed by the New York Times, Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, Billboard and Performing Songwriter. You can follow him at his website billmcgarvey.com or on Facebook.com/billmcgarvey
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Marian Ronan

    I am a graying liberal Catholic–a women’s ordination activist among other things–but I couldn’t agree more with this post. The “chew each other up and spit each other out” approach has really reached the end of its usefulness. Wasn’t it Jesus who said we should love our enemies?

    In fact, I agree with “They Will Know We Are Christians by our Denunciation” so much, I’ve published a book exploring why post Vatican II American Catholics fight so much, and how we might find a better path into the future: “Tracing the Sign of the Cross: Sexuality, Mourning, and the Future of American Catholicism” (Columbia University Press, 2009) In this book I argue that for many of us, the Catholic sex/gedner wars were a way to avoid mourning the extraordinary losses we suffered beginning in the last third of the 20th cnetury. Then, drawing on fiction and memoirs by four American writers with distinctively Catholic imaginations, I trace the outline of a more productive American Catholic future, an outline that bears a striking resemblance to the cross. I’m hoping my book will advance the conversation to which this post has already contributed.

  • Joe DeCarlo

    Those who are pro-choice are illogical. You can’t say something is wrong and give a person the right to do a wrong. You are either for or against abortion. As Jesus said, you are either for me or against me.

  • Joe DeCarlo

    Obama should be denounced by all human beings. He voted against a ban on botched abortions which means he would allow a baby to die because the baby was supposed to be aborted. He is evil and the anti-Christ. I could never have a dialogue with him, but I will pray that the devil is exoriced out of him.

  • Bruce Roeder

    Interesting article. Way to miss the point!

    If one actually reads the comments of the 83 bishops who publicly objected, it is clear they did NOT object to ND inviting the President to speak: that is an obvious honor. The objection was that ND HONORED a public figure who advances the culture of death (reversal of Mexico City policy, destruction of human embyros for scientific research, withdrawal of conscience protections, etc.) with a doctorate of law degree, in direct DISOBEDIENCE OF THE BISHOPS.

    Engaging opposing viewpoints are welcome in the academic world, especially at Catholic colleges and universities. The Catholic Church invented universities, remember?

    But now, due to our stiff-necked stubborness (on both sides), it appears to the secular public that the Catholic Church denounces even engaging those who disagree with the Church at Catholic colleges and universities, and that Catholics disobeying their bishops is reasonable.

    Way to miss the point!

  • Gennie

    Great article. It put my thoughts into words. I’m not a fan of President Obama, didn’t and won’t vote for him (provided there’s a pro-life candidate), but this is showing how divided the Church in America is. Why can’t we all just get along? He’s the President of the United States, let the man speak. If we just completely shut him out, we’ll be shut out too and the Catholic voice will not be heard. We need to get rid of the “conservative” and “liberal” labels that so many put in front of Catholic when describing themselves or others, and all just be Catholics. If we love our neighbors, Catholic or not, who are not in full communion with the Church, some of them just may follow us back.

  • Kate

    As a current ND student, thank you for not simply condemning my school for inviting President Obama. Abortion is an absolutely terrible practice, but it is not the only crucial political issue with which our country is faced. Notre Dame is home to many adamantly Pro-life students who voted for Obama, and even many of those who voted for McCain were excited and honored to welcome the President to our school. I am proud of Father Jenkins and proud to call myself a Notre Dame student.

  • Michael Hebert

    I like your thinking, but don’t really understand how a “prophesy of solidarity” applies to abortion. Surely this doesn’t mean we stand together in disagreeing with it, but do nothing about it.

    If abortion is wrong we are obligated to do something about it. Obama’s giving a speech at ND doesn’t bother me, but the protests didn’t either. We do have an obligation to speak out about this.

  • Brandon Kraft

    Very nice. While I disagree with the President’s opinion on abortion, his call for fair-minded words, open hearts and minds is dead on.

    Every human life is sacred from conception to natural death and our goal is to convince everyone else of that. If we aren’t willing to move past polarizing talking heads on both sides of the debate and move toward talking to each other. Not talking about each other–talking to each other.

  • Brian Barcaro

    Honestly I am not sure how this article is relevant to the Obama-ND flap. I do not think most practicing Catholics think of themselves more Catholic than the pope. I also do not think most are unwilling to dialogue, share a meal or even a beer. I do not agree with Mr. Obama but if he invited me to dinner or a meeting I would certainly go both because he is my president and because it is the christian thing to do. But there is a very clear distinction between honoring people who are fundamentally hostile to Church teaching and being open enough to allow reasons and charity to flow forth towards those who disagree. What if a Catholic University would have invited politician to speak at graduation and bestow and honorary degree during the civil rights movement who was in favor of slavery even though he/she supported many other Catholic values? Abortion is different because it is an intrinsic evil, not poverty, not the environment, not even the death penalty. Commencements speeches are not dialogue and to claim they are is red herring, they are about providing a person with a stage in the most positive light to allow him/her to bestow their thoughts, opinions & ideologies on a graduating class and all those in attendance. Let’s have solidarity and dialogue where and when we can but we also have to be mindful that there are times when we must draw a line in the sand. Martin Luther King knew this as did Lincoln so too must we as Catholics.

    Brian Barcaro

  • Brian

    Wait… didn’t Cardinal George say that the Obama invite was a mistake? Also there is a difference between “dialogue” and “honoring” for sure.

  • Laura/ Bronzed Shoe

    I agree that we need a prophecy of solidarity. I’m a current ND student, and while I think that we never should have invited Obama in the first place, once the invite was given and announced, there was nothing to be dome. What, you expect Fr. Jenkins to uninvite the President of the United States? So our options were to A) make a big fuss, draw in the media, show the world how divided we are, and drive a bigger wedge in the Church or B) accept the situation and learn to make room in our hearts for even those who disagree with us. To my great disappointment, we chose A- and where has it gotten us? Nowhere good.

  • Mike Hayes

    Slats–Bishop Quinn, the former Archbishop of San Francisco did offer some support for President Obama you can check it out here:

  • Gregg Kimball

    I agree that dialog (aka, preaching the Gospel) is vital if not central to the Christian witness. Therefore I was disappointeded to see Cong. Tom Tancredo banned from speaking at Providence College–along with Notre Dame, also a Catholic University. Sadly, it seems American Catholic academics can dialog ONLY out of the LEFT side of their mouths!

  • Rosemary Azzaro

    ND has set precedence by inviting other US Presidents to speak in spite of their opposing views on other life issues. Barack Obama IS the President of the United States and certainly has a lot to say to all the graduates of ND– Catholic and non. I look forward to hearing our President’s address. Some graduates tune out or might forget the words of those invited to give the address due to their own excitement or, frankly, the poor oratorical skills of the speaker. President Obama will not disappoint as a speaker. Let the well-educated ND grads make up their own minds. I liked the encouraging words our President spoke to the Arizona grads– urging them to reach out to the poor, sick and homeless. Values not valuables. Maybe these kinds of words and actions will help us all have better conversations– with one another, in our faith communities and in the world.

  • Slats Grobnik

    Here’s my question(s): Have any American bishops made a statement in support of Notre Dame? If not, why not? Bishops seem to take all kinds of stands about all kinds of issues. Is there not one bishop who thinks like the 52% of Catholic voters who put Obama in office and can accept the fact that the man might do some good for the country and the world, and who might have something important to say to the ND grads that is worth knowing DESPITE the fact that he is wrong on abortion? What’s the threat the bishops fear?

  • Bill McGarvey

    Thx for the spell check heads up, Liz, it’s been fixed.

  • Liz O’Connor

    L. O’C.: Polarization remains a huge problem in the church, and you are right in pointing out that it is an obstacle to evangelization because it makes us look, from the outside, like people who are all caught up in inside-baseball arguments, rearranging deck chairs, etc. And since we follow a Master who was accused of spending too much time eating & drinking & talking with sinners and outcasts, we shouldn’t be too quick to decline to share a platform with a fellow Christian who disagrees with us on some points, however crucial those points may be.
    I don’t think Bishop Cupich was blas√© about his comment–beware of spellcheck!

  • ml

    The tone of the argument is a valid point; what I perceive, and I may be wide of the mark here, is that the camp that is prone to wholesale denunciations of pro-choice politicians (or those who support them), and the like, display a lot of fear and anger. I find it rather distasteful, and my first instinct is to put as much distance between myself and them as possible, but this reaction, too, is not conducive to a healthy interaction.

    What to do…

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