CHICAGO – It’s hardly news to JoAnne Festle that there are people in the pews at Our Lady of Lourdes Roman Catholic parish in Chicago who wink at church teachings. Though she disagrees with them, she withholds judgment.
“I don’t think we have the luxury of saying, ‘I can’t be on the same dais with him’ or ‘I can’t speak with him or be in the same forum.’ I think those days are gone – if we ever had them at all,” Festle said. “I don’t think we’re ever going to have a situation where everyone agrees in the Catholic church.”
President Barack Obama’s invitation to the University of Notre Dame today accentuates this disunity that’s churned for decades in the American church – a tension between enforcing age-old church teachings and accepting that societal values are evolving.
“There are so many centrifugal forces working on American Catholics, moving them away from … the church being the center of their moral lives,” said R. Scott Appleby, history professor at Notre Dame. “Catholics are accustomed to making their own decisions. That’s one of the results … of living in a democracy like ours.”
To some, the idea of welcoming a prominent supporter of abortion rights into one of the nation’s premier Catholic institutions defies the very principles on which that institution was founded. Opponents have reacted in a distinctly American fashion – with loud and passionate protest. After a groundswell of opposition from conservative laity, some of the nation’s prelates have hurled insults never thought possible from the mouths of bishops.
But parishioners and priests say those debates don’t play out in most pews. While church teachings are one of the many things that unite them, they keep their personal morality personal.
“I don’t think the vast majority of the mainstream Catholic American experience is in touch with this simmering tension,” said Festle’s priest, the Rev. Michael Shanahan. “It’s just not on their minds. … This is just a given part of the polarities that we live right now between faith, politics and culture.”
John Chesna, a parishioner at St. Thomas More on Chicago’s South Side, believes “real Catholics” listen to the pope. He also believes those who don’t will face consequences. An admirer of Obama, Chesna voted for John McCain last November based solely on the abortion issue.
“There are a lot of cafeteria Catholics who pick and choose what they want,” said Chesna, 55, of Oak Lawn. “It does bother me that people don’t follow the Vicar of Christ. … We will all be judged for what we do.”
How Catholics act on their shared beliefs seems to be the dividing line between liberals and conservatives. David Keene, 56, a parishioner at St. Josaphat parish in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago, said universal health care would do more to prevent abortions than legislation that would criminalize it.
“I really do believe in the fundamental teachings of the Catholic church on life and the dignity of life,” Keene said. “We’re all in agreement that abortion is not a good thing. The bishops do a wonderful job of ministering to the people. Sometimes they need to be ministered to. People in the church need to help them understand what some of the problems are and how to solve some of those problems.”
In the case of the Obama invitation, the Vatican has remained silent. But the people have spoken – especially conservatives.
Activists with the Cardinal Newman Society sounded the alarm, launched an online petition and scheduled protest rallies on campus today. Since the news spread, at least 74 American bishops have condemned Notre Dame either for inviting Obama to speak or for awarding him an honorary degree.
Bishop John D’Arcy of the Diocese of Ft. Wayne-South Bend, Ind., where Notre Dame is located, will boycott the graduation for the first time in his 24 years as bishop.
Bishop Thomas Doran of Rockford, Ill., suggested that Notre Dame change its name to “The Fighting Irish College” or “Northwestern Indiana Humanist University.”
Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Notre Dame had caused “extreme embarrassment,” but later took a more diplomatic approach. Sources say he and university President John Jenkins, a priest of the Congregation of Holy Cross, which founded the school, met to discuss the commencement controversy – a meeting that was reportedly conciliatory on both sides.
Publicly, George said, reaction supports Catholic theology that “what one of us does in Catholicism affects us all.”
Massimo Franco, an Italian journalist and expert on U.S. and Vatican relations, said there is concern in Rome that the hostility of the American bishops will backfire. Appleby said indeed the bishops’ anger makes the church a hard sell to seekers.
“To reduce Notre Dame’s Catholic identity to the decision to invite the president of the United States to commencement demonstrates how polarized the church has become and how distrustful and suspicious Catholics are of one another,” Appleby said. “Frankly, it’s disgraceful for some of the bishops to behave that way.”
A recent survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life reported that Catholicism has lost more people to other religions or to no religion at all than any other single religious group. For every new Catholic who joins the church, five others raised as Catholics have left the faith.
The Rev. Richard Prendergast of St. Josaphat said most parishioners are worn out by the debate.
“Parishioners who often say nothing are just fed up with all the controversy and wish it would go away,” he said. “Part of that comes from the deliberate strategy to make abortion the third rail in the American Catholic Church today.”
But Shanahan, of Our Lady of Lourdes parish in the Ravenswood neighborhood, said parishioners who build their faith life around certain issues become incensed when others show indifference. For those particularly passionate about opposition to abortion rights, it’s upsetting to see a proponent on the campus of the nation’s flagship Catholic university, he said.
And Chesna, who will drive to South Bend with his 7-year-old son today to demonstrate and pray, said it’s appropriate that Obama is being confronted by the issue at a university named Notre Dame, or Our Lady.
“She’s the patroness of the unborn,” Chesna said. “It’s fitting because we’re trying to protect the unborn children. Maybe we’re all being drawn to this event for a reason. Maybe Obama will have a change of heart.”