Friday, March 27, 2009

When a news story isn't really a news story.

I've been trying to wrap my head around the supposed controversy of Notre Dame inviting Barack Obama to give their commencement address (he accepted), but the pieces aren't quite fitting together. For those not familiar with the ensuing hullabaloo, Notre Dame is a Roman Catholic university, one that, institutionally-speaking, holds some views which some of Obama's policies oppose. This contradiction, or "scandal" as some have called it, has presumably outraged countless students, alumni, faculty, and Roman Catholics across the world. But has it?

This is the sort of story which makes me froth at the mouth with giddy anticipation. There's no easier target than someone who cries foul when forced to listen to opposing viewpoints. People who are so insulated that they can't even comprehend why an institution of higher learning would think to invite the most powerful man in the world to come and address their student body are people who are, arguably, fundamentally unserious. If I didn't know any better, I'd think this was a non-story cooked up by the "liberal media" just to score some easy points against radical pro-life conservatives. Except it's not. It's actually a non-story that's being played up more by conservative media outlets.

The truth is, any major speaker at any major university is going to generate some disagreement over the invitation. And, in this instance, you have one of the most prestigious universities and, arguably, the most prestigious speaker in the world, so any friction will be naturally amplified. Even so, this is a non-story. Yes, there's an online petition at that has 183,984 signers as of this moment, but that's hardly a reliable litmus test for public outrage. It's an internet petition open to anyone in the world with an opinion and too much time on their hands as they watch Sean Hannity. Without a thorough breakdown of who those small-minded people are, it's a completely meaningless petition. More telling, I think, would be the letters written to The Observer, the Notre Dame student newspaper. You remember letters, don't you? That thing you do where you sit down and actually put together a few thoughts in support of an opinion? As opposed to pushing a button? Yeah, letters.

Of 612 letters received about Obama's appearance (as of yesterday), they are almost evenly split between alumni and current students. As one might expect, the alumni take a far more dogmatic approach to Obama's appearance with 70% opposing his appearance, while 73% of the current students support it. More telling are the letters from 95 seniors---you know, the ones for whom the commencement address is actually intended. Of those letters, 97% support the invitation made to the President. This certainly does not mean that 97% of the Seniors agree with Obama's policies, but it certainly shows an ability to be open to dialogue; a willingness to listen. Obviously Notre Dame is teaching these students right.

So what then, and to whom, exactly, is the problem? Well, according to Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of the Phoenix Diocese, Obama's selection is a "public act of disobedience" and "a grave mistake." First, I don't put much stock into anything coming from the Phoenix Diocese, that mecca of Catholicism. But second, a public act of disobedience? Look, I know the Catholic Church is not evil, and I know that every faith and every philosophy will have its followers who can make the entire thing seem whack, but is there any religion in the world with a greater disconnect between its parishioners and its leaders? What this so-called story highlights is not the difference of opinions between Obama and Catholics, but rather the difference of opinions between rational Catholics and irrational Catholics.

Just as with the Republican Party, there is a widening gulf between the two dominant ways Catholics approach their religion. One is dogmatic and "obedient" to past doctrine, the other is open-minded, flexible--principled. It's this latter group, for example, that realizes the key to dealing with the abortion issue is not through chastising the selection of the President as a guest speaker, but rather through embracing his visit and understanding that they share a common goal of reducing unwanted pregnancies---someone worth listening to. One approach to Catholicism will become increasingly irrelevant in America, the other will become more influential. Guess which.


Anonymous Brian said...

Wait, are we talking about the same Catholic Church whose leader just went on a tour of Africa encouraging people not to use condoms? Because I'm not crazy about them. But good post.

March 30, 2009 at 11:55 AM  
Blogger Kraig Smith said...

Yes, well, that would be my point about the rational Catholics vs. the irrational ones. I think "most" American Catholics think that sort of thing is nonsense and just find some way to reconcile it as part of the crap you have to put up with in being a Catholic. Like I said, there's no greater disconnect than between the Vatican and its US followers.

March 30, 2009 at 4:43 PM  

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