Conservative Catholic Groups Fuel Obama Notre Dame Controversy

David Weigel

The biggest problem for conservative Catholics has not been getting the Obama speech portrayed in the press as a scandal, but in distancing from some extremists trying to take ownership of the outrage.

Within hours of the news that President Barack Obama would give the
commencement address to this year’s graduates of Notre Dame University
in South Bend, Ind., angry opponents of the decision founded a new
Website, NotreDameScandal.com, where they could register their complaints and sign a petition asking the school to “halt this travesty.”

“Notre Dame has chosen prestige over principles, popularity over morality,” reads the petition.
“Whatever may be President Obama’s admirable qualities, this honor
comes on the heels of some of the most anti-life actions of any
American president, including expanding federal funding for abortions
and inviting taxpayer-funded research on stem cells from human
embryos.” Within days, tens of thousands of people had signed on.

“Virtually every media story for the first few weeks of this scandal
cited our site and our petition,” said Patrick Reilly, the president
and founder of the Cardinal Newman Society, in an interview with TWI.
“There’s tremendous outpouring of support for the students who are
opposing this outrage at Notre Dame. Some of them have said they’ll
have nothing to do with Notre Dame if this goes forward.”

After eight years of only occasional disagreements with a Republican
president, conservative Catholic activists have moved into the trenches
to oppose Obama. They cite his repeal of the Mexico City rule, or
“global gag rule” that banned providing federal money to international
groups that promote or provide abortions, his stem cell compromise, and
his cabinet nominees like Kathleen Sebelius, the pro-choice governor of
Kansas, to argue that he is the most pro-abortion rights politician
ever to ascend to the job. They are bolstered by new media outlets and
organizations that did not exist at their current strength in 2000, the
last time Catholics had to contend with a pro-choice president. At the
same time, they’re encouraged by a series of high-profile statements
from church leaders on political morality–including the 2004
declarations by bishops that they would deny communion to
then-presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), and Pope Benedict XIV’s 2005 speech
attacking the “dictatorship of relativism.” A small number of
conservative groups, and a more newsworthy group of conservative
bishops — 42 so far — are turning the Notre Dame speech into a
watershed moment, while obscuring the fact that the president enjoys
majority support from Catholics.

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Reilly’s efforts have served as a window into the movement. The
Cardinal Newman Society is recognized as the key advocate for
conservative values at Catholic universities, but it is a relatively
small organization. Reilly is one of seven employees of the group,
loosely affiliated with the conservative Media Research Center, whose
president L. Brent Bozell III serves on the Cardinal Newman Society’s
board of directors. According to tax records filed in 2007, the
organization runs on less than $1 million per year. The
NotreDameScandal site itself is a modest project, using the exact same
design, and same stock photos, as the Cardinal Newman Society’s own
page. Nonetheless, the effort has put the group in the news and
garnered more than 350,000 signatures. It’s bolstered claims that the
group represents ersatz Catholic opinion, which wants Obama to cancel
his speech and Father John Jenkins, president of the university, to
apologize or step aside.

“I haven’t seen polling on this issue,” Reilly said, “but if you see
them you have to do some parsing and ask: Are these faithful Catholics
who are attending mass and living faithful to Catholic teachings? Among
faithful, church-going Catholics there’s been tremendous support for
our efforts. A lot of Catholic groups are dealing with the fact that
Catholics across the United States have drifted and they need to take a
stand.”

By defining the stakes in the Notre Dame fight, conservative
Catholics are able to overcome two hurdles–the president’s popularity
with Catholics nationally and Notre Dame students in particular. The
piece of evidence most often cited to prove the president’s “Catholic
problem” is a March 2009 Pew Research poll
that revealed a steep drop in the president’s approval numbers among
self-identified Catholics since the inauguration. But the poll gave the
president a 59-28 favorable rating among all Catholics and a 47-41
rating among white, non-Hispanic Catholics. An April Pew poll
gave the president high marks from Catholics on his handling of stem
cell research, a decision that involved Catholic advisers. Obama
carried Indiana in 2008 by a slim margin that included a win in St.
Joseph County — which contains Notre Dame — and a win among Notre Dame
students, who also picked Obama over McCain in a pre-election poll .

“Catholics are a diverse group of people,” said John Green, a senior
fellow at the Pew Center for Religion and the Press, explaining the
poll. “There’s been a decline in Obama’s numbers that’s not too far out
of step with his decline overall. The rest of this, a lot of this, is
internal politics between conservative Catholics and liberal Catholics.”

For Deal Hudson, the president of InsideCatholic.com, and a
political guru who directed Catholic outreach for President George W.
Bush and Sen. John McCain, that analysis missed the mark. “When you are
trying to get the Catholic vote,” he said, “the first thing on the
table is getting a speaking engagement at Notre Dame. I know. I’ve been
there! The Obama political team did this and, I’m sure, expected some
kind of backlash, but nothing like the watershed moment that this has
turned into.”

The “watershed moment” has been heavily debated in Catholic
magazines and web sites–World, Inside the Vatican, Catholic World News,
LifeNews.net, the New Oxford Review–which have flowered over the last
few years and which have aggressively covered the Obama decisions that
have most upset conservative Catholics. The minor story of Georgetown covering up the monogram “IHS,” meaning “Jesus,” to make room for the staging of an Obama speech, has been aggressively covered. CNSNews.com–which, like the Cardinal Newman Center, is directed by L. Brent Bozell–published an enterprise piece asking whether the president would agree to wear the official robes at Notre Dame, since they are threaded with a prayer.

“Blogs can keep issues alive in a way that wasn’t possible before,”
said George Neumayr, the editor of Catholic World Report, a
conservative weekly. “The bishops are bombarded with complaints because
of of the activity level of blogs and the ease with which people can
contact the chancery. A bishop who’s receiving 1,000 messages is more
likely to come out and at least make a statement about the most
anti-Catholic president in modern history.”

The biggest problem for conservative Catholics has not been getting
the Obama speech portrayed in the press as a scandal, but in distancing
from some of the people trying to take ownership of the outrage.
Randall Terry, the anti-abortion activist who converted to Catholicism
in 2006, has moved temporarily to South Bend to mount protests
against the school. Reilly, Neumayr and others accused Terry of being a
trouble-maker and self-promoter whose effort–more than 30 full-time
agitators, 50,000 letters to alumni that include postcards depicting
dead fetuses, bringing fringe political candidate Alan Keyes to speak,
and planning a rumored “alternate commencement for Notre Dame
Heroes”–makes them look fringe. In an interview Terry said that
American bishops were “directly responsible for Obama’s election”
because they hadn’t spoken out against him politically. “The fabric of
Notre Dame’s treachery was woven by American bishops,” said Terry, who
also called Georgetown University “a house of political harlotry” for
allowing Obama and Vice President Biden to speak there.

Terry laughs when the worries of other conservative Catholics are
read back to him. “How can they delude themselves to think this war can
be won in cyberspace?” he asked. “I always tell people that petitions
are no more than a fundraising mechanism to gather your name and raise
money from you. They’re scams. For them to say I shouldn’t be on the
ground shows they are not culture warriors. If Martin Luther King had
taken the advice of the Cardinal Newman Society, black people still be
riding in the back of the bus.”

Catholic supporters of the president are trying to weather the storm
and dispute the idea that Obama has a “Catholic problem.” Douglas
Kmiec, a former Notre Dame professor and constitutional legal counsel to Ronald Reagan who endorsed Obama and published the election tract “Can A Catholic Support Him?”
argued that Reagan had been met by protests when he gave his celebrated
1981 commencement speech. “No one thought,” said Kmiec, “that when
Reagan came to accept his honorary degree he’d engage in a symposium
where a bishop would give him the evangelium vitae on capital
punishment, or the early draft of pastoral letter of American bishops
on reducing nuclear weapons.”

Kmiec characterized much of the Notre Dame talk as politicized and unrepresentative of what Catholics think, especially the activity of Newt Gingrich, who became a Catholic this year.

“For Newt Gingrich to say, as a latter-day Catholic, that this
president has ignored Catholic issues, means that he needs to go back
to adult religious education class to learn more deeply about the
social justice elements that he probably missed,” Kmiec said. “The
notion that this president is not in line with those sentiments is not
befitting of the former speaker, who was a former scholar, and who I
admire as someone who normally has creative ideas.”

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