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Obama connects while deflecting abortion furor

The president's Notre Dame commencement speech addresses controversy while seeking 'common ground.'

May 20, 2009|TIM RUTTEN

To borrow a description from Barack Obama's beloved basketball, it's now clear that the president is the rhetorical equivalent of a "money player."

Among pros, like the ones currently contesting the NBA championship, this is the kind of competitor who steps up and delivers in the big games. Obama did that twice during his campaign -- once during the primaries, when he had to address his connection to the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., and again coming out of the Denver convention, when he had to set the tone for his national race.

He did it again Sunday at Notre Dame, where he scored vital points from every place on the floor. John Kenneth Galbraith once remarked that the one thing all the great leaders of his lifetime had in common was their willingness to speak directly to the great popular anxieties of their era. Obama's rhetorical success as a leader derives not simply from his measured eloquence but from his willingness to do precisely that.

The commencement address at Notre Dame had become an engine of controversy because a tiny minority of America's more than 67 million Catholics and a handful of their bishops (70 out of the 440 in the U.S. hierarchy) objected to the university conferring an honorary degree -- customary for commencement speakers -- on a pro-choice politician. It's routine to refer to these Catholics as "conservatives," though that term is relatively meaningless in the context of the American church. Essentially, they're reductionists, who insist on bringing the broad sweep of Catholic social morality down to a single issue -- abortion. In doing so, they are bent on forcing members of the church into the Republican Party.

Obama negotiated the situation with remarkable ease. He echoed the call by Notre Dame's president, Father John Jenkins, that both sides in the abortion debate cease "demonizing" the other while forthrightly admitting that the differences between the two may be, on the most fundamental level, irreconcilable.

The president then evoked two names of extraordinary resonance among Catholics. One was the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, who believed that a genuine pro-life stance included not only opposition to abortion and euthanasia but also opposition to capital punishment and support for decent wages and healthcare for families.

The other was Notre Dame's president emeritus, Father Theodore Hesburgh, who, Obama reminded his audience, brought the horribly fractured U.S. Civil Rights Commission together at a private fishing resort to produce the recommendations that ultimately became the key points of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Reaction to the president's address was immediate and far from predictable. An online commentary in the Jesuit magazine America decried the protesting bishops for having "let their opposition spin out of control" so that "it looked like they were marching to orders from the Republican National Committee."

Perhaps more discomforting to the reductionists, the address was praised in Monday's editions of the official Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, which noted that Obama's "search for a common ground" rejected the "strident tone" that characterized the debate over abortion during the campaign.

In fact, the president was speaking Sunday to three audiences far from South Bend on Sunday: One was the crucial bloc of Catholic voters who seem to be looking for ways to remain in the Democratic Party. According to the most recent Gallup poll, 67% of them approve of the job the president is doing, and six out of 10 supported Notre Dame's invitation.

Obama also was speaking to those Catholic Democrats in public office -- such as Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey Jr. -- who are under intense pressure from the reductionist bishops in their home dioceses. (Even though Casey is carrying one of the most progressive pieces of prenatal, early child-care and adoption legislation in history -- endorsed by Philadelphia's Cardinal Justin Rigali, head of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities and by the Vatican -- his bishop, Joseph Martino of Scranton, has threatened to deny him Communion for voting to confirm Sebelius and even tried to halt his commencement address at a small Catholic college Sunday.)

Finally, the president knows that his impending Supreme Court nominee will be grilled on his or her abortion views and perhaps, according to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), subjected to filibuster. So the U.S. Senate was also part of Obama's audience on Sunday.

Even in Washington's charged partisan atmosphere, it will be hard to ignore the president's call for civility at Notre Dame.

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timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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