I just listened to Obama’s commencement speech at Notre Dame. It reminded me that his entire schtick is one long commencement speech: a hypnotizing cadence, vaguely aspirational sentiments about the future, and self-congratulatory pablum about “this important time in history.”
On abortion, Obama continues his strategy of acknowledging the sincerity of his opponents, even while his policies are radical, i.e., removing conscience exemptions for medical professionals and opposing the nomination of Justices Roberts and Alito on “prochoice” grounds as a U.S. Senator. His words are always more satisfactory than his policies. He said today:
Understand – I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. No matter how much we may want to fudge it – indeed, while we know that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory – the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable. Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature.
Open hearts. Open minds. Fair-minded words.
But what is missing? Missing is any sense that reason can lead us to answers on controversial issues of ethics and policy. For Obama and most of his peers, this is just a clash of sincere feelings and, as such, our mutual skepticism about arriving at any answers and our respect for the “authority” of feelings is supposed to lead us to a truce, where neither “imposes” his view on the other. The truce of course is what the “pro choice” side pretends to embrace, even as abortion is funded by the government and promoted to young children against the wishes of their parents. This idea of a relativistic truce is the very opposite of the Thomistic moral tradition at the heart of Catholic Social Teaching, a tradition where reason is acknowledged not merely as a tool of solving problems–that is, a means of arriving from point A to goal B–but a tradition where reason is acknowledged as including a capacity of sensing moral right by examining nature and the intrinsic purposes embedded in nature itself. In other words, reason offers us a way out of the impasse not by acknowledging the authenticity and sincerity of our opponents, though we may do that, but by eventually leading reasonable interlocutors proceeding in good faith into shared agreement.
The stuff about making abortion less common likely will not mollify the Catholic faithful either. Implicit in most of this talk is the value of state-funded birth control and eugenics regimes, including the use of abortifacient birth control pills. He did not spell this out, but his meaning was clear. Young people at places like Notre Dame are, believe it or not, often quite untainted by the compromises of life and likely better schooled than many of their parents and their left-leaning faculty on the evils of such a “consequentialist” approach.
Obama’s biggest problem is that his Notre Dame appearance was a bust that antagonized the faithful. Catholics that go to church are many times more consevative than “lapsed” Catholics who answer media surveys and the very unusual faculty at Catholic Universities. The anti-abortion issue is the great defining public issue of Catholics in American politics today. From stem cell research funding to abortion to the tone-deaf decision of Notre Dame to reward Obama with an honorary degree, Obama has appeared in public as a great antagonizer of Catholics. If the Catholic issues of yesteryear were the rights of workers and fair treatment of parochial schools, today’s issue is opposition to abortion, what the Holy Father John Paul II powerfully described as the opposition of the “culture of life” and the “culture of death.” Obama will never be on the right side of Catholics on this issue, and Catholics may become increasingly mobilized as a force along with Evangelicals, Southerners, Westerners, Gun-Owners, anti-immigrant natives, and others in a culturally conservative coalition little concerned about “capital gains tax cuts” but very united in their feeling that the country is not their own and the leadership is aiming at their subordination.