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Hypocrisy on Obama and Notre Dame?

I've received a number of emails questioning why some pro-life Catholics oppose President Obama's invitation to give the commencement address and receive an honorary degree at Notre Dame when they didn't oppose George W. Bush's 2001 speech there, given Bush’s support of the death penalty, which the church mostly opposes.

It's a legitimate question with a complicated answer. First, a few qualifiers and disclaimers: I am not Catholic. I do not speak for Catholics. I am pro-life, but support legal protection of abortion, preferably with strict limitations. I am anti-death penalty. I oppose state power to take human life except in self-defense because one mistake is one too many.

What else? I'm against torture. And factory farming, baby-seal masscres and gratuitous violence in movies and real life. I will shoot to kill, however, if you enter my house with intent to do harm.

Now to the question, briefly.

Most Catholics support the death penalty, and the church only relatively recently came out against capital punishment except when absolutely necessary to protect society from harm. Pope John Paul II wrote in his encyclical "Evangelium Vitae" (The Gospel of Life), issued March 25, 1995, that execution is only appropriate, "when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today, however, as a result of steady improvement in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically nonexistent."

Previously, Catholic rules had affirmed the right of the state to punish criminals with appropriate penalties "not excluding in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty."

Clearly, Bush, who enthusiastically oversaw the death penalty as governor of Texas -- and in 2003 sought to expand death penalty applications during his war on terror -- fell short of the church's new standard. So why didn't Catholics protest when he was invited to speak at Notre Dame?

Since I am not, in fact, the pope, I posed the question to some Catholic scholars. Their response essentially is that the church views the taking of innocent life (abortion) as an intrinsically evil action that can never be justified, while executing a criminal is not intrinsically evil -- and can be both moral and good under the principal of self-defense, when bloodless means are not sufficient to render an aggressor incapable of continuing to do harm.

A second distinction, according one priest I consulted, concerns each man's "promotion" of the issues.

"We can say that Bush was ‘in favor of’ the death penalty, but what I think is more accurate is that he wasn't opposed to it in principle or in practice, provided that the circumstances warranted it," he said. The church would disagree with Bush on what those circumstances ought to be, he added. And I would disagree that there is ever any justification for the state to premeditatedly take a human life.

Another distinction with a difference: Bush wasn't going around speaking to pro-death penalty groups saying, "The first thing I hope to do as president is sign the Pro Death Penalty Bill that will eliminate every and all restrictions ever passed to its implementation," as Obama did with the Freedom of Choice Act. Pro-life Catholics view Obama as actively promoting policies that support the destruction of innocent human life. Says the priest: "Just as Yeshiva would never invite Bishop Richard Williamson (Holocaust denier) to give a commencement address, so a Catholic university worthy of the name would and should never invite someone who denies the evil of abortion."

Timing and context are important here, I think. Since John Paul II's 1995 statement on the death penalty, many Catholics have re-examined their own positions. It may well be that, at some future point, a president who favors capital punishment wouldn't be welcome on a Catholic campus. But before that happens, the church will have to declare (and Catholics will have to embrace) that the death penalty is intrinsically evil rather than just not preferable. I could go for that.

By Kathleen Parker  | April 29, 2009; 3:57 PM ET
Categories:  Parker  | Tags:  Kathleen Parker  
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Great. So now we are equating Barack Obama with a Holocaust-denying formerly excommunicated bishop. This is a stunningly close-minded point of view.

Let's be honest. You didn't talk to "some Catholic scholars." You talked to right-wing Catholic scholars who align themselves with the Republican Party nationally and with John Paul II and his successor on the world scene. There are plenty of moderate or more liberal Catholic scholars out there. I have a feeling their phones weren't ringing today from your calls.

Barack Obama has the first Catholic Vice President. He won an enormous number of votes from American Catholics. The overwhelming choice of actual Notre Dame students and parents is for him to speak at the graduation. But those aren't the Catholics you accept as "real."

Posted by: fairfaxvoter | April 29, 2009 4:27 PM | Report abuse

Those opposing Obama speaking at graduation within the church are taking an absurd stance. Catholic universities all over the world "honor" professors with endowed chairs and students with degrees who publicly support abortion. Typically, the church is indiscriminately deciding which rules it wants to follow and applying those inconsistently. You can either be a good university that has a religious affiliation or a religious school that pretends to be good. I hope ND has chosen the former.
Is it not an honor for a head of state to be received at the Vatican? Will the pope refuse to see President Obama? Somehow, I doubt that the pope would refuse to meet with Obama.

Posted by: NotreDameAlumn | April 29, 2009 4:32 PM | Report abuse

As I have mentioned before, to be true to itself should Notre Dame decide to uninvite Obama, take away all scholarships to all students who do not believe as the Catholic Church on the abortion issue. Fire all staff who feels the same way. Don't take money from any families who don't fall in line. All Catholic institutions should follow this rule. Then you can say Obama shouldn't be there because he's pro-choice. I bet a lot of grads receiving the diplomas are pro-choice too.

Posted by: baltimoremom | April 29, 2009 4:44 PM | Report abuse

Nobody is pro-abortion, no organizations, no politicians, no media talking heads. Nobody wants or advocates for women to abort their fetuses. In contrast, there are people who advocate for criminals to be executed, who would protest if they got a pardon. It is a whole different level of evil. Bush signed off on the executions in Texas, so is directly responsible for them, while Obama wants to let women decide, hoping they choose life.

Posted by: qwe1234 | April 29, 2009 4:53 PM | Report abuse

Ms. Parker you are statistically far more likely to kill one of your loved ones in anger. Or have one of your children find your weapon and accidentally kill themself or another child or you...

...than you are ever likely to use your weapon on an intruder.

Remember that every time you look at your children and let it haunt you the rest of your life if it happens.

If this country had decent gun control like other civilized nations you wouldn't need to put your children at risk like that.

Posted by: Regeman | April 29, 2009 4:59 PM | Report abuse

One could argue in the opposite direction, though:

While abortion is, according to the Catholic church, always a grave moral evil, so is torture and so (often) is capital punishment. But there's a key difference. In the case of the former, what the state does is to permit the evil to occur - Obama is not giving the order for any individual abortion to occur; in the latter two cases, however, it is the state itself that actively performs the evil, and a politician in the executive branch that performs such actions is arguably much more culpable, since he/she is actively responsible.

I've been a grad student at Notre Dame for some years. I seriously doubt that even, say, 50% of the speakers that come here agree with all of the Catholic church's teachings. That's because Notre Dame is a university, where ideas are meant to flow freely and people are meant to be confronted with ideas with which they deeply disagree. It was the Catholic, Newman, that so movingly described this.

I think you might also mention that, at least according to the numbers I last heard, a sizable majority of Notre Dame's senior class wants Obama to attend, and does not want him to be disinvited. That ought to count for something too.


Posted by: Beren | April 29, 2009 5:08 PM | Report abuse

Mostly I respect Kathleen Parker for her intellectual honesty. But, this is little more than rationalization. In posts to the origninal article, also raised were issues of contraception and divorce (not newbie Catholic doctrine), i.e. would the same article be written about one who was a proponent of birth control or divorced. Those issues were ignored in this response article. Selectively choosing one subject (capital punishment) and selectively ignoring others (contraception and divorce) because the one you chose supports your rationalization while the other two do not is not intellectually honest. Please try again.

Posted by: gshpc | April 29, 2009 5:09 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: onestring | April 29, 2009 5:12 PM | Report abuse

Great article Kathleen, thanks for writing it.

Posted by: ZZim | April 29, 2009 5:18 PM | Report abuse

Ms. Parker, your column of earlier today pointed out the glaring hypocrisy of the Church and Ms. Glendon. Notre Dame University is simply inviting a commencement speaker and can't be faulted for issuing an invitation to the President of the United States, as has been their tradition. It's a commencement speech. No one is going to be advocating for or against abortion, for or against the death penalty, for or against torture, etc. It will be a wonderful milestone and family event for a graduating class that has stated their overwhelmingly support for hosting this popular President - that's all.

The biggest concern, on the minds of graduating seniors and their guests, is most likely about the weather. Sun or rain? No one is thinking about abortion except the few that seek to make it an issue, instead of celebrating the commencement exercises.

If Ms. Glendon chooses not to accept an award because she is offended by the commencement speaker, so be it. Protesting the commencement exercises by citing the President's pro-choice stance, appears extremely self-serving.

I repeat my comment in response to your earlier comment:

If Ms. Glendon is so strongly affected by those that do not share her beliefs, how does she reconcile herself to the many secular minded programs, faculty, staff, and students at Harvard University, where stem cell research (among many other activities unaligned with the teachings of the Church), is vigorously pursued? She draws a salary from an institution that violates an important principle of the Church - non? She is intimate with many who do not follow Church teachings, but is unable to share the podium with the President of the United States, a man that is more in line with Church teachings, in many important ways, then former President Bush.

It's possible to parse beliefs in many ways to justify a point of view. Parse away. This column was a good attempt.

Posted by: portiaperu | April 29, 2009 5:27 PM | Report abuse

Obama is not pro-abortion. He, like most people, is against it. The question is whether it should be illegal to have an abortion, and if so, what are the consequnces to the mother and the person performing the abortion. Obama, though personally opposed to abortion, does not think the government has the right to criminalize the behavior, given the "right to choose" affirmed in Roe v. Wade.

The catholic church is so out of touch it's amazing. I suspect they will continue to contract much like the Republican party.

Posted by: NMModerate1 | April 29, 2009 6:09 PM | Report abuse

Talk about sophristry . . . come on Ms. Parker, at end your argument boils down to "killing one way is fine, killing the other way isn't."

Posted by: reporter1 | April 29, 2009 6:14 PM | Report abuse

The priest consulted about Bush and the death penalty is full of bs ... Bush sent more people to the death penalty while governor than all other governors combined during the time. Catholic priests are twisted. This same priest probably has a justification for why pedophile priests were moved around parishes rather than removed and given over to authorities.

Posted by: paris1969 | April 29, 2009 6:21 PM | Report abuse

Every decision an individual makes has responsibilities. Tough thing for liberals to swallow. Obama should be barred from setting foot on Catholic property. His willingness to push abortion, does not get my respect nor should it get the Catholic Church's respect.

Posted by: steven7753 | April 29, 2009 6:35 PM | Report abuse

Ms. Parker, as much as you are trying, you are digging yourself into a bigger hole.

Your logic is illogical. Don't try to defend it. You are wrong. Admit it.

Posted by: CaptainJohn2525 | April 29, 2009 6:58 PM | Report abuse

Ah, what a great many of the pro-abortion apologists miss here is important. You are pro-abortion when you take steps to make it easier for people to kill an unborn human being in the womb. You are pro-abortion when you oppose every effort to make it more difficult to kill an unborn human being in the womb. You are not pro-life when you say someone should have the "right" to decide to kill an unborn human being. It is an evil, detestable act, defended by our pro-abortion president.

Notre Dame chose to the glory of this world by having the honor of a President visiting it's campus instead of abiding by the glory of the faith on which that University was founded, honoring the sanctity of human life. Social justice principles cannot be established on this earth unless we first acknowledged the sanctity of human life.

Posted by: MikeL4 | April 29, 2009 7:56 PM | Report abuse

Here's a Notre Dame grad ('83) 100% in favor of the university's decision to honor President Obama.

Posted by: greener_pastures | April 29, 2009 8:41 PM | Report abuse

Kathleen, it is not up to Barack to turn down Notre Dame's invitation. It was graciously offered, and he graciously accepted. It is up to Notre Dame to rescind the invitation. If the conservatives associated with the school are able to convince President Jenkins that President Obama is not an appropriate speaker or honoree, then Jenkins will withdraw the offer, and that will be that. It will be Notre Dame's loss(and shame). Hey, maybe Michelle Bachmann is available!

Posted by: mgurbada909 | April 29, 2009 9:01 PM | Report abuse

Kathleen, it is not up to Barack to turn down Notre Dame's invitation. It was graciously offered, and he graciously accepted. It is up to Notre Dame to rescind the invitation. If the conservatives associated with the school are able to convince President Jenkins that President Obama is not an appropriate speaker or honoree, then he will withdraw the offer, and that will be that. It will be Notre Dame's loss(and shame). Hey, maybe Michelle Bachmann is available!

Posted by: mgurbada909 | April 29, 2009 9:03 PM | Report abuse

Kathleen, it is not up to Barack to turn down Notre Dame's invitation. It was graciously offered, and he graciously accepted. It is up to Notre Dame to rescind the invitation. If the conservatives associated with the school are able to convince President Jenkins that President Obama is not an appropriate speaker or honoree, then he will withdraw the offer, and that will be that. It will be Notre Dame's loss(and shame). Hey, maybe Michelle Bachmann is available!

Posted by: mgurbada909 | April 29, 2009 9:03 PM | Report abuse

Those who oppose capital punishment should, to be morally consistent, be against military intervention by any country against any other country because many innocent people are likely to be killed.

Posted by: Aprogressiveindependent | April 29, 2009 10:52 PM | Report abuse

"Talk about sophistry . . . come on Ms. Parker, at end your argument boils down to "killing one way is fine, killing the other way isn't."

Perhaps Ms. Parker isn't being a sophist or pundit. I enjoyed her nuanced article. But the above blogger’s point is an astute observation. 302 million American citizens (at least the adults) justify under what conditions we can or cannot “legally” kill. Morality, be it a secular or spiritual view, only has relevance when enacted into law. Now we know why pro-life vs pro-choice groups do fierce political battle, constantly.

If one accepts the above argument (killing are two-sides of the same coin – the coin being our consensus justifications), then I opine Notre Dame should not un-invite President Obama for two reasons:

1. According to the U.S. Census (July 2007), there are about 149 million males (babies, teens, adults) and 153 million females (babies, teens, adults), about 302 million citizens (not including non-citizens). Only the females can have babies, at least until we develop and agree on artificial out-of-the-womb procreation. But the Pope (Catholic Leader) is a male. And only XY-percent of all Catholics are male. The XX-rest are female. The same applies to non-Catholic religions. It also applies to Agnostics (like myself) and Atheist. Tally up all these religious, quasi-religious, and non-religious Americans (XY’s and XX’s) and we still get: 1) 49% of our population don’t have a womb but donate sperm. 2) 51% can donate the egg, can have babies, and primarily raise them. Why not defer to the majority voice of the 51%? -- hence Woe v Wade.

2. President Obama is pro-choice. He, a very powerful male, opines: 51% of the population get to CHOOSE whether they will abort. Their voice (enacted into Woe v. Wade) empowers 153 million women to “decide” -– not GOD, not the Pope, not 149 million men, unless these women CHOOSE to permit such. Choice is omnipotent!

Now, if someday the majority of 153 million women should decide otherwise, over-turn WVW, then all women will adjust their reproductive rights to comply with a new “legal constraint” –- NO CHOICE. They will agree that if any female gets pregnant, then regardless of her reason and circumstance, she must have the baby or like Octo-Mom all the babies. She probably will have to raise them, with or without any male/income help. Otherwise, she'll become a criminal. This baby-murderer will go to prison for life or be given the death penalty. She took "an intrinsically innocent life" per GOD, enacted into secular law. Moreover, Notre Dame will ban any female (and male) who objects, challenges, the pro-life mission: to protect all unborn life from evil-females and any evil-males. Only non-sinners (and those open to redemption and salvation) may attend -- become an educated, enlightened, spiritual absolute pro-life human being.

Posted by: GroupThink | April 29, 2009 11:19 PM | Report abuse

Ms. Parker, you say "I am pro-life, but support legal protection of abortion, preferably with strict limitations." That, by definition is "pro-choice" and is definitely not the Catholic position, but is much closer to President Obama's position.

Posted by: izzydc | April 30, 2009 12:30 AM | Report abuse

I'm a fan of Ms. Parker, but this collection of Catholic rationalizations is just downright pathetic.

The answer is that today's Roman Catholic Church is utterly obsessed about two and only two things: (1) fetuses and (2) hating gay people. Those are the only two things that ever spark this kind of sanctimony, and there is no theological justification for it.

The true justification is that the Roman Catholic Church is a dysfunctional institution because it is run by sexually immature men who have fled from real life into a cloistered, loveless, sexless, only partly human existence.

The issues on which these clerics, as individuals, have the least experience and which they are personally deprived have become their obsessive fixations. In a word, these men are pitiable freaks, who are little different from people who voluntarily mutilate their own genitals.

Posted by: uh_huhh | April 30, 2009 6:33 AM | Report abuse

I write this as a Domer. There was plenty of protest when President George W. Bush spoke at the 2001 Commencement.

At the University of Notre Dame, as among Catholics, many ideas and thoughts are listened to and discussed. The ideals of the University of Notre Dame, as with the Catholic Church, center around more than just abortion and the death penalty.

Some of President Barak Obama's policies fit well with Notre Dame and the Catholic Church, others do not. The same was true of President George W. Bush. I'm sure the University of Notre Dame as well as Catholics are eager to listen to both.

Posted by: ideallydc | April 30, 2009 1:53 PM | Report abuse

It is so tiring to shadow box with the obvious flaw in Obama's invite to Notre Dame - when the real issue here is why did Catholics help elect Obama in the first place?

Posted by: trumpeter63 | April 30, 2009 6:25 PM | Report abuse

I generally like Kathleen Parker, but she is just plain wrong here. To accept some priest's claim that George W. Bush wasn't "in favor" of the death penalty as much as "not opposed" is to accept a bald faced lie (and then rely on the liar to support her thesis). Does Parker forget that Bush made fun of Karla Faye Tucker, the reformed "born again" killer, right before he signed her execution order? Tucker appealed for clemency on the grounds that she had become a born-again Christian. Bush's reply: " `Please,' Bush whimpers, his lips pursed in mock desperation, `don't kill me,' " Bush presided over 150 executions -- the most in the nation. And when reporters looked into these cases during the 2000 campaign, here's what the Chicago Tribune (hardly a liberal bastion) concluded in its lede: "Under Gov. George W. Bush, Texas has executed dozens of Death Row inmates whose cases were compromised by unreliable evidence, disbarred or suspended defense attorneys, meager defense efforts during sentencing and dubious psychiatric testimony." Not until the Presidential campaign did he delay a single execution. Kathleen, there's a big difference, I would argue, between a philisophical discussion and HANDS ON experience. Barack Obama has made speeches on the Freedom of Choice act; George Bush signed the death orders. Come on you "devout" Catholics (I'm a recovering one) -- let's see you dance on the head of THIS pin. Hypocritical leadership increasingly does not speak for parishoners and is serving only to drive people like me out of the pews.

Posted by: Omyobama | May 1, 2009 2:02 AM | Report abuse

you know, technically, an abortion doesn't take what is truly an "innocent" life. if it wasn't baptized, it's still a sinner... that whole "original sin thing... oh wait, the church decided that they don't care about that tenet of faith any longer. so they're allowed to pick and choose what they want to follow or how they want to deifne the things that matter to their faith, and we need to jump around accordingly?

Posted by: jenms | May 1, 2009 10:03 AM | Report abuse

The hypocrisy among Catholics and Notre Dame people is astonishing. The same people who abhor the notion of Barack Obama speaking at Notre Dame because of his views regarding a woman's right to choose and medical stem cell research would stand in line to escort him there if he were 18 and could throw a football 70 yards.

It amazes me that these same people apparently had no problem with a warmonger like Bush speaking there. I guess these people value the lives of innocent Muslims in Iraq who were collateral damage in the war and those sentenced to death in Texas to be less than that of the unborn. I guess to them "thou shall not kill" comes with qualifiers.

But this group, while vocal, is in the minority. Catholics strongly supported and support President Obama.

Posted by: kemp13 | May 3, 2009 1:47 AM | Report abuse

kemp13 is spot on! If Obama were a pro-choice star quaterback we would not even be having this discussion. The point of course, being the glaring and all to frequent duplicity under which, the church's so called standards are applied. Any skepticism (or worse) involved regarding the relevance of such an institution therefore seems to me, entirely justified as follows:

From Exodus 21: 12-14 is cited as The Law: "Whoever strikes a man a mortal blow must be put to death...when a man kills another after maliciously scheming to do so, you must take him even from my altar and put him to death.

Another similar unequivocal command was: "If anyone sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; For in the image of God has man been made." Genesis 9:6.

The Catholic Church clearly teaches that God is immutable (unchangeable), period!

How then does either passage above translate into God's alleged 1995 update that: "...execution is ONLY appropriate, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society"? And btw, why did it take almost 2,000 years A.D. for God to move a little closer to politically correct on this one since He was obviously well up to speed on the whole fish on Friday thing years ago? Couldn't He have impoved efficiency by simply including both issues in the same memo?


In my estimation, the bottom line is God's corporate headquaters has lost what little remaining moral credibility it may (or may not) have had left by turning a blind eye to it's pedophile priests. They're all dead to me.

Posted by: artyanimal | May 3, 2009 10:09 AM | Report abuse

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