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May 20, 2009
Column #1,447
Obama Courts Catholics
By Mike McManus

President Obama had two problems in speaking at the Notre Dame Commencement on Sunday and in getting an honorary doctor of laws degree. 

First, his invitation was opposed by 80+ bishops, including Bishop John D'Arcy, whose diocese includes Notre Dame and Cardinal Francis George, President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who blistered the invitation an "extreme embarrassment to Catholics. It is clear that Notre Dame didn't understand what it means to be Catholic."  

Why?  Obama is such a supporter of abortion that he told Planned Parenthood during the campaign he hoped his first act would be to sign a Freedom of Choice Act to wipe out all limitations to abortion such as parental notification laws that have pushed abortions down among teenagers.

Second, a new Gallup Poll reported that for the first time ever, a majority (51 percent) of Americans now say they are "pro-life" and only 42 percent are "pro-choice." Last year, the public was pro-choice by a 50-44 margin, the reverse of the current sentiment.  That helped elect him.

For example, Catholics voted for Obama by 54-46 percent, an important part of his winning margin.  If any segment of the population might shift to pro-life, Catholics are that swing group. Therefore, Notre Dame's invitation was Obama's first opportunity to court Catholics.  The very controversy insured high reportage, a true golden opportunity.

Obama seized the moment magnificently.  It could not have gone better.

First, he flattered them: "Your class has come of age at a moment of great consequence for our nation, a rare inflection point in history where the size and scope of the challenges before us require that we remake our world to renew its promise…Your generation must decide how to save God's creation, from a changing climate that threatens to destroy it."

He addressed the abortion issue deftly, asking for cooperation between pro-life and pro-choice opponents to "reduce unintended pregnancies. Let's make adoption more available. Let's provide care and support for women who do carry their children to term. Let's honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause."

Obama candidly confessed that "at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable." While each side makes its case with passion and conviction, he hoped it could be done without "reducing the views of those with differing views to caricature."

However, Janice Crouse of Concerned Women for America, commented: "He is a very clever man with words. But I've learned to see what people do, rather than what they say."

If Obama really wanted a "conscience clause," why has he announced rescinding President Bush's conscience regulations that allow health care workers to abstain from performing medical procedures that they object to on moral grounds?

Another person who does not believe him is Chuck Donovan, Executive V.P. of the Family Research Council, a graduate of Notre Dame - as were all five of his siblings, three of whom are physicians who fear "that they will be embroiled in a choice between their career and their faith or convictions," Donovan said.  That could not happen if there were a conscience clause.

Contrary to Obama's smooth rhetoric about "open minds, open hearts" on abortion, he has reversed a decades-long rule prohibiting the federal funding of abortions internationally.    He is ending federal funding for abstinence education, which lies behind a dramatic drop in the abortion rate of teenagers. And he is increasing the funding of Planned Parenthood clinics, the largest provider of abortions in America.

These are actions which will increase the number of people getting abortions, contrary to his stated goal of reducing the number of abortions. 

However, few of the students, the TV audience, or even White House reporters caught such nuances or commented on contradictions between Obama's words and his actions.

What they heard was the President praise such Catholics as former Notre Dame President Father Ted Hesburgh, 92, who chaired the first Civil Rights Commission, appointed by President Eisenhower, and Cardinal Joseph Bernadin, Archbishop of Chicago, "a kind, and good and wise man, a saintly man."

Obama even said that in working with Catholic churches in Chicago, "I found myself drawn not just to the work with the church, I was drawn to the church. It was through this service that I was brought to Christ."

Obama came to faith through Catholics?  That seems far-fetched to me.  What matters, however, is that Obama won standing ovations from those present and praise from Catholic commentators such as E.J, Dionne, Jr. and Father Tom Reese.

More important, his polished but glib speech helped solidify his political base with Catholic voters.

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