notredame_logo31I came across a web site today in which George W. Bush was referred to as a modern-day Pontius Pilate. It was not intended as a compliment. The site was an elaborate comparison of Pilate’s administration in first-century Judaea and Bush’s administration in 20th century Texas, with the emphasis on the 152 persons who were executed while Bush was governor. The Catholic Church is opposed to the death penalty – as it was opposed to the war in Iraq – but George Bush was invited nonetheless to address the students at Notre Dame University. 

Although I voted for Barack Obama, I disagree with his policies on abortion. I have to wonder, however, if those who don’t think Obama should speak at the university also expect Notre Dame to exclude from the discussions going on in its classes and seminars – exclude from the content of any essay, term paper, dissertation – references to the work of any person – scientist, author, dramatist, theologian, philosopher, political figure – whose views differed with those of the church.   

Does anyone seriously believe that because Notre Dame invited Obama to speak, the university doesn’t subscribe to the church’s teaching on abortion, or that a single one of those graduates will change his moral views because he hears a speech by the president of the United States?

As for the honorary degree to be conferred on Obama, if the whole man is to be recognized anywhere in our society, one would hope it would be recognized at an institution of higher learning. It’s true, as some have said, that Notre Dame must remain constantly aware of what it is to be a Catholic university, but it also must remain aware of what it is to be a university.


Matthew 7:1

March 16, 2009



A difference of opinion within the Catholic Church over a case of rape in Brazil calls attention to the destructive role that legalism and rhetoric can play in situations that are difficult enough on their own. This dialogue involves a nine-year-old girl who was raped – her stepfather is accused – and who underwent the abortion of twin fetuses after doctors determined that giving birth to the child would seriously endanger the girl’s life. I adhere to the Catholic position on abortion, but I don’t claim to have a pat answer for a girl who finds herself in such a situation, nor for her mother, who had to decide what to do. And the destructive rhetoric that I referred to stems from folks on both sides who think of abortion as a black-and-white  issue. I don’t advocate relativism, but things like rape occur in the real world to real people, and that is the context for our discussion of abortion, whether we like it or not. At the same time, the question of the beginning of human life is far from settled, and that, too, must color the discussion.

In this case, Jose Cardoso Sobrinho, the archbishop of Recife, Brazil, publicly announced that the Catholic doctors who had participated in the abortion, and the girl’s mother, had incurred excommunication. Archbishop Sobrinho also said that the accused stepfather had not been excommunicated and offered the absurd, misogynistic rationale that abortion is a more serious sin than rape.

The church’s approach to this case provoked a strong negative reaction, but despite an initial endorsement from the Vatican, the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops said last week that the excommunications were improper, because they did not “take the circumstances into consideration” – a reference to the stress under which the girl’s mother acted and the fact that the doctors involved do not regularly perform abortions.

But Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, went further than that. Writing in L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, he upheld Catholic teaching on abortion but criticized the church in Brazil for acting in the first instance as though it were Thomas Becket tossing King Henry out of the fold – without regard to the “arduous” decision that was involved in this case, saying that such situations require “mercy.” Instead, Fisichella said, the girl “above all should have been defended, embraced, treated with sweetness, to make her think that we were all on her side – all of us, without distinction.”  As though he were speaking to the girl, Fisichella wrote: “There are others who merit excommunication and our pardon, not those who have allowed you to live and to regain hope and trust.”

I don’t know anyone who has formed an opinion on abortion, one way or the other, out of meanness or callousness, but the emotional outbursts that accompany the public debate can be hurtful and are never helpful. Abortion is a difficult, heart-wrenching matter, complicated by seemingly unsolvable psychological, social, and economic problems. The intransigence and name-calling that often accompany the debate over this issue – to say nothing of the violence that has at times erupted – does not help.  Archbishop Fisichella wrote that the inner conflict experienced by the doctors in this case should have been taken into account before they were held up to public oprobrium. I think that’s good advice to apply to any discussion of abortion.

“Never again”?

February 28, 2009

I once read a caveat about words – that even God can’t kill them once they’re said. I don’t know if that’s theologically correct, but it applies in my mind to Richard Williamson, the pseudo-bishop who thinks the Holocaust has been exaggerated if it took place at all. Williamson is a reactionary who wouldn’t accept the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and went off into the ultraconservative Pius IX society to play at being a Medieval Catholic. Among the games was his ordination as a bishop. Benedict XVI, trying to end the schism, agreed to allow Williamson and four other priests back into the Church, but Williamson embarrassed the pope and made himself a laughing stock by questioning in an interview many aspects of the Holocaust that are well documented – by the Nazis themselves, among others. The Vatican responded to the furor that followed that statement by saying Williamson would have to recant that statement if he expected to function as a Catholic bishop. All he has done is issue a statement saying that he’s sorry he caused such a fuss. The Vatican rejected that statement and said again that Williamson must explicitly disavow any question about the reality and the dimensions of the crimes committed against Jews and others during World War II. There was nothing ambiguous about the Vatican’s position, so Williamson’s statement was obviously disingenuous. No matter what he says now, he should not function as a priest, never mind a bishop. Instead, he should be put to work recording the reminiscences of the GIs who liberated those death camps.