What Obama Should Say at Notre Dame

On May 17, Barack Obama will deliver the commencement address and receive an honorary degree at the University of Notre Dame. It is one of the most controversial events in American Catholic culture in many years. In 2004, the American bishops formally asked all Catholic universities not to honor public supporters of abortion. Many churchgoing Catholics often feel disappointed in their bishops, but they do cheer this countercultural resistance. So it is also understandable why weekly churchgoers (who take abortion much more seriously than those who go to church infrequently or not at all) oppose paying honor to so conspicuous a defender and promoter of abortion as President Obama.

Meanwhile, Obama has recently noted that one team in his White House is working with pro-life advocates, while another works with pro-choice advocates. He wants them, he says, to find at least some common ground.

Temperamentally, the President might be ready to make some moves in this direction. Last month, he surprised the nation by saying something he has said before, but with a new stress: Abortion is not just a legal question but a “moral and ethical question.”

Of course, in the same breath the President restated his position that a woman has the right to choose an abortion. But he hinted that there is more to the question than just his position, and that is what he might elaborate on at Notre Dame.

The President might, for instance, say that when it comes to central moral questions like abortion it is not enough merely that I make my choice and you make yours. That is not mutual respect. That is a sloppy indifference to moral truth. It leads to relativism, under which no rights are safe.

The President, then, might acknowledge that it is understandable that people are searching for the “self-evident” truths on which our rights are founded (see the Declaration of Independence). This is a good and healthy search. But it is also understandable how others disagree (regarding some of the “life issues”).

How can we bring both together in public argument?

During the campaign, Obama said that he would sign as his first act in office the Freedom of Choice Act, a federal bill that would override many state restrictions on abortion, including for health care providers in Catholic hospitals that receive federal funding. But in recent months the bill has wound up on the back burner, leaving many to wonder about his true position.

Obama could now say that, upon consideration, he has taken to heart at least one criticism — he now appreciates the fact that many at Notre Dame and around the nation think it wrong to force doctors and nurses to perform actions that their own consciences find abhorrent. The President can say that while he continues to support most of the Freedom of Choice Act, he believes it is not freedom of choice to coerce people to perform abortions. He should pledge, as President, not to support a bill that contains these provisions.

Abortion and euthanasia, he might say, rest on the same principle: the power of some people to take the lives of others. Precisely because “the life issues” are so tightly connected, he might add, pro-choice people, in particular, must try harder to understand the pro-life position. He himself finds the pro-choice position easy to grasp, he might say, but will try honestly to listen to arguments on the other side.

Obama might end his speech this way: “In this new era of mutual respect, even passionate arguments should be conducted with civility. I urge all of you to argue clearly, to argue politely, and to argue with respect for those who most disagree with you.

“Let us continue to reason together, not necessarily to end all disagreement, but at least to gain greater insight into the force of the argument of those with whom we disagree the most.

“Let me close with the aphorism attributed by some to Reinhold Niebuhr: ‘Always remember that there is some truth in your opponent’s error, and some error in your own truth.’”

Published in New York Daily News May 14, 2009