WE PUBLISH occasional commentaries by Thomas J. Reese, SJ, one of the leading authorities on the Catholic chuch today. Reese often appears as a commentator in TV coverage of the church and has written several books on the structure of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. He offers this commentary on President Obama’s speech at Notre Dame …
(ALSO: Read the complete text of Obama’s landmark address.)
By Thomas J. Reese, S.J.
President Obama’s reception at Notre Dame showed once again that a new generation of Americans, including Catholics, is looking for a different kind of leader, not one who speaks down to his audience, demands strict loyalty and demonizes opponents, but one who addresses complexity with honesty, acknowledges disagreements and tries to bring people together for the common good.
President Obama showed himself to be respectful of Catholic views, of Catholic institutions like Notre Dame and of Catholic leaders like Notre Dame’s former president, Father Ted Hesburgh, and Chicago’s former archbishop, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.
In his speech, he praised Notre Dame for being, in the words of Father Hesburgh, both a lighthouse and a crossroads. “The lighthouse that stands apart, shining with the wisdom of the Catholic tradition, while the crossroads is where ‘differences of culture and religion and conviction can coexist with friendship, civility, hospitality and especially love.'”
It was clear that Obama saw Cardinal Bernardin, whom he met in Chicago, as a model of leadership:
[Cardinal Bernardin] stood as both a lighthouse and a crossroads–unafraid to speak his mind on moral issues ranging from poverty, AIDS and abortion to the death penalty and nuclear war. And yet, he was congenial and gentle in his persuasion, always trying to bring people together; always trying to find common ground. Just before he died, a reporter asked Cardinal Bernardin about this approach to his ministry. And he said, “You can’t really get on with preaching the Gospel until you’ve touched minds and hearts.”
President Obama went on to say that he learned this “tradition of cooperation and understanding…with the help of the Catholic Church” as a community organizer for a group of Catholic parishes in Chicago. He even credited his experience of working with Catholic parishes as a community organizer for making him a religious person: “It was through this service that I was brought to Christ.”
President Obama did exactly what he needed to do at Notre Dame. He challenged the students to take on the problems of the day, he spoke beyond them to the wider audience of Catholic citizens and presented a demeanor that contrasted with those who tried to paint him as a demonic, anti-life fanatic. His message was the need to work together to solve the problems and challenges facing the world not by exacerbating divisions but by bringing people together.
This lesson goes beyond the abortion debate to all the domestic and international challenges that we face. As he told the graduates, “we must find a way to reconcile our ever-shrinking world with its ever-growing diversity–diversity of thought, of culture and of belief. In short, we must find a way to live together as one human family.”
But he acknowledged, “even bringing together persons of good will, men and women of principle and purpose, can be difficult.”
Sounding more like a preacher than a politician, he asked that we extend the “presumption of good faith” to those who disagree with us. “Because when we do that–when we open our hearts and our minds to those who may not think like we do or believe what we do–that’s when we discover at least the possibility of common ground.”
It is clear where he thinks this common ground can be on abortion, which he declared has “both moral and spiritual dimensions.”
So let’s work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions by reducing unintended pregnancies, and making adoption more available, and providing care and support for women who do carry their child to term. Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded in clear ethics and sound science, as well as respect for the equality of women.
This will not satisfy those who want to outlaw abortion, but can we not all work together to reduce the number of abortions? The political reality is that abortion is not going to be made illegal anytime soon. Simply as an intermediate strategy pro-life people should join with Obama in doing everything possible to reduce the number of abortions. Not to do so is to put politics above the life of the unborn.
And abortion is only one of the many challenges that we face. Add to that finding “a path back to prosperity,” deciding “how we respond to a global economy that left millions behind even before this crisis hit,” saving “God’s creation from a changing climate that threatens to destroy it,” and seeking “peace at a time when there are those who will stop at nothing to do us harm.” And more.
As the President told the graduates, “no one person, or religion, or nation can meet these challenges alone. Our very survival has never required greater cooperation and understanding among all people from all places than at this moment in history.”
Thomas J. Reese, S.J., Senior Fellow, Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University, writes for Georgetown/On Faith.