A small number of conservative groups and 42 bishops are turning the speech into a watershed moment, while obscuring the president’s support among Catholics.
Within hours of the news that President Barack Obama would give the commencement address to this year’s graduates of Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind., angry opponents of the decision founded a new Website, NotreDameScandal.com, where they could register their complaints and sign a petition asking the school to “halt this travesty.”
“Notre Dame has chosen prestige over principles, popularity over morality,” reads the petition. “Whatever may be President Obama’s admirable qualities, this honor comes on the heels of some of the most anti-life actions of any American president, including expanding federal funding for abortions and inviting taxpayer-funded research on stem cells from human embryos.” Within days, tens of thousands of people had signed on.
“Virtually every media story for the first few weeks of this scandal cited our site and our petition,” said Patrick Reilly, the president and founder of the Cardinal Newman Society, in an interview with TWI. “There’s tremendous outpouring of support for the students who are opposing this outrage at Notre Dame. Some of them have said they’ll have nothing to do with Notre Dame if this goes forward.”
After eight years of only occasional disagreements with a Republican president, conservative Catholic activists have moved into the trenches to oppose Obama. They cite his repeal of the Mexico City rule, or “global gag rule” that banned providing federal money to international groups that promote or provide abortions, his stem cell compromise, and his cabinet nominees like Kathleen Sebelius, the pro-choice governor of Kansas, to argue that he is the most pro-abortion rights politician ever to ascend to the job. They are bolstered by new media outlets and organizations that did not exist at their current strength in 2000, the last time Catholics had to contend with a pro-choice president. At the same time, they’re encouraged by a series of high-profile statements from church leaders on political morality–including the 2004 declarations by bishops that they would deny communion to then-presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), and Pope Benedict XIV’s 2005 speech attacking the “dictatorship of relativism.” A small number of conservative groups, and a more newsworthy group of conservative bishops — 42 so far — are turning the Notre Dame speech into a watershed moment, while obscuring the fact that the president enjoys majority support from Catholics.
Reilly’s efforts have served as a window into the movement. The Cardinal Newman Society is recognized as the key advocate for conservative values at Catholic universities, but it is a relatively small organization. Reilly is one of seven employees of the group, loosely affiliated with the conservative Media Research Center, whose president L. Brent Bozell III serves on the Cardinal Newman Society’s board of directors. According to tax records filed in 2007, the organization runs on less than $1 million per year. The NotreDameScandal site itself is a modest project, using the exact same design, and same stock photos, as the Cardinal Newman Society’s own page. Nonetheless, the effort has put the group in the news and garnered more than 350,000 signatures. It’s bolstered claims that the group represents ersatz Catholic opinion, which wants Obama to cancel his speech and Father John Jenkins, president of the university, to apologize or step aside.
“I haven’t seen polling on this issue,” Reilly said, “but if you see them you have to do some parsing and ask: Are these faithful Catholics who are attending mass and living faithful to Catholic teachings? Among faithful, church-going Catholics there’s been tremendous support for our efforts. A lot of Catholic groups are dealing with the fact that Catholics across the United States have drifted and they need to take a stand.”
By defining the stakes in the Notre Dame fight, conservative Catholics are able to overcome two hurdles–the president’s popularity with Catholics nationally and Notre Dame students in particular. The piece of evidence most often cited to prove the president’s “Catholic problem” is a March 2009 Pew Research poll that revealed a steep drop in the president’s approval numbers among self-identified Catholics since the inauguration. But the poll gave the president a 59-28 favorable rating among all Catholics and a 47-41 rating among white, non-Hispanic Catholics. An April Pew poll gave the president high marks from Catholics on his handling of stem cell research, a decision that involved Catholic advisers. Obama carried Indiana in 2008 by a slim margin that included a win in St. Joseph County — which contains Notre Dame — and a win among Notre Dame students, who also picked Obama over McCain in a pre-election poll .
“Catholics are a diverse group of people,” said John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Center for Religion and the Press, explaining the poll. “There’s been a decline in Obama’s numbers that’s not too far out of step with his decline overall. The rest of this, a lot of this, is internal politics between conservative Catholics and liberal Catholics.”
For Deal Hudson, the president of InsideCatholic.com, and a political guru who directed Catholic outreach for President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain, that analysis missed the mark. “When you are trying to get the Catholic vote,” he said, “the first thing on the table is getting a speaking engagement at Notre Dame. I know. I’ve been there! The Obama political team did this and, I’m sure, expected some kind of backlash, but nothing like the watershed moment that this has turned into.”
The “watershed moment” has been heavily debated in Catholic magazines and web sites–World, Inside the Vatican, Catholic World News, LifeNews.net, the New Oxford Review–which have flowered over the last few years and which have aggressively covered the Obama decisions that have most upset conservative Catholics. The minor story of Georgetown covering up the monogram “IHS,” meaning “Jesus,” to make room for the staging of an Obama speech, has been aggressively covered**. **CNSNews.com–which, like the Cardinal Newman Center, is directed by L. Brent Bozell–published an enterprise piece asking whether the president would agree to wear the official robes at Notre Dame, since they are threaded with a prayer.
“Blogs can keep issues alive in a way that wasn’t possible before,” said George Neumayr, the editor of Catholic World Report, a conservative weekly. “The bishops are bombarded with complaints because of of the activity level of blogs and the ease with which people can contact the chancery. A bishop who’s receiving 1,000 messages is more likely to come out and at least make a statement about the most anti-Catholic president in modern history.”
The biggest problem for conservative Catholics has not been getting the Obama speech portrayed in the press as a scandal, but in distancing from some of the people trying to take ownership of the outrage. Randall Terry, the anti-abortion activist who converted to Catholicism in 2006, has moved temporarily to South Bend to mount protests against the school. Reilly, Neumayr and others accused Terry of being a trouble-maker and self-promoter whose effort–more than 30 full-time agitators, 50,000 letters to alumni that include postcards depicting dead fetuses, bringing fringe political candidate Alan Keyes to speak, and planning a rumored “alternate commencement for Notre Dame Heroes”–makes them look fringe. In an interview Terry said that American bishops were “directly responsible for Obama’s election” because they hadn’t spoken out against him politically. “The fabric of Notre Dame’s treachery was woven by American bishops,” said Terry, who also called Georgetown University “a house of political harlotry” for allowing Obama and Vice President Biden to speak there.
Terry laughs when the worries of other conservative Catholics are read back to him. “How can they delude themselves to think this war can be won in cyberspace?” he asked. “I always tell people that petitions are no more than a fundraising mechanism to gather your name and raise money from you. They’re scams. For them to say I shouldn’t be on the ground shows they are not culture warriors. If Martin Luther King had taken the advice of the Cardinal Newman Society, black people still be riding in the back of the bus.”
Catholic supporters of the president are trying to weather the storm and dispute the idea that Obama has a “Catholic problem.” Douglas Kmiec, a former Notre Dame professor and constitutional legal counsel to Ronald Reagan who endorsed Obama and published the election tract “Can A Catholic Support Him?” argued that Reagan had been met by protests when he gave his celebrated 1981 commencement speech. “No one thought,” said Kmiec, “that when Reagan came to accept his honorary degree he’d engage in a symposium where a bishop would give him the evangelium vitae on capital punishment, or the early draft of pastoral letter of American bishops on reducing nuclear weapons.”
“For Newt Gingrich to say, as a latter-day Catholic, that this president has ignored Catholic issues, means that he needs to go back to adult religious education class to learn more deeply about the social justice elements that he probably missed,” Kmiec said. “The notion that this president is not in line with those sentiments is not befitting of the former speaker, who was a former scholar, and who I admire as someone who normally has creative ideas.”
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