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Why is abortion the issue that trumps all others?

US President Barack Obama is at the centre of a storm raging at the University of Notre Dame, perhaps the best known Catholic institution of higher learning in the United States.

The president of Notre Dame, Rev. John Jenkins, a priest of the Holy Cross Congregation that runs the university, invited President Obama to speak at the school’s commencement on May 17 and receive an honorary degree. Obama agreed. Then all hell broke loose. Conservative Catholics and leading prelates brought huge pressure to bear on the university to withdraw the invitation to Obama; claiming that he is “pro-abortion,” because he supports choice and embryonic stem cell research.

The head of the United States bishops conference, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, said the university’s decision was an “extreme embarrassment” to Catholics and added,“Whatever else is clear, it is clear that Notre Dame didn’t understand what it means to be Catholic when they issued this invitation…”

The local bishop, John D’Arcy, announced that he will not attend the graduation and an online petition by the Cardinal Newman Society against the invitation has collected a quarter of a million signatures. Pro-life groups on the Notre Dame campus have organized demonstrations. Pro-life activist Randall Terry plans to rent a house near the university for the next six weeks to mount a campaign to stop Obama from speaking. Terry’s website features a photograph of the president between pictures of Judas and a graphic photograph of an aborted fetus.

All this furor begs the question whether it makes any sense to regard abortion as so crucial an issue to relations between Catholics and a secular government that no other consideration carries any weight.

It is interesting that the question has a somewhat different answer here in Canada. The US bishops seem frustrated that their Catholic flock is not more militant on the issue of abortion. A Gallup survey of polls on religious attitudes over the past three years shows that Catholic views on issues such as embryonic stem-cell research and legalized abortion are not that different from their non-Catholic fellow citizens. (I expect the figures would be about the same here in Canada).

But Canadian bishops, even allowing for hardline conservatives like Cardinal Ouellet in Quebec City and Archbishop Terrence Prendergast S.J. in Ottawa, seem far less aggressive than their American counterparts. Canada has no abortion law at all. So far as I am aware, even though we have had a series of Catholic Prime Ministers – Trudeau, Clark, Turner, Chrétien, Martin – the Canadian bishops have mounted no consistent campaign to pass such a law. There is much less controversy about abortion in Canada than there is south of the border. Very few prelates here are threatening to withhold Communion from pro-choice Catholic politicians.

But the current controversy at Notre Dame raises questions related to abortion in both countries. The main one is whether for Catholics abortion trumps every other issue when it comes to public discourse. After all, President Obama has a political agenda that promises greater social justice and equality, more harmony between the races, environmental reforms – and he favours social measures that would reduce the need for abortion. Nobody has suggested that Obama should be silenced because he has not promised to end the death penalty – which is also part of Catholic teaching on the sanctity of life – nor that his predecessor should have been rejected because he engaged his country in an unjust war in Iraq, where untold innocent lives were lost.

Nor are all Catholic voices impugning the president. John Quinn, archbishop emeritus of San Francisco, highlighted the danger for Catholics if they adopted what he called the “clenched-fist approach.” He has urged that “it is in the interests of both the Church and the nation if both work together in civility, honesty and friendship for the common good, even when there are grave divisions, as there are on abortion.”

Father Jenkins is standing by his decision, saying the invitation to speak at the graduation ceremony “should not be taken as condoning or endorsing his [Obama’s] positions on specific issues regarding the protection of human life.” A survey of letters to the student newspaper The Observer indicated that while 70 per cent of alumni were opposed to Obama speaking at the university, 97 per cent of the graduating class approved of him speaking.

The Catholic journal The Tablet, from London, captures the central issue for Canadians and Americans in this uproar. “It seriously damages the whole Catholic contribution to democratic politics to treat abortion not only as a black-and-white issue, with no shades of grey, but as the unique black-and-white issue that trumps all others.”



At May 7, 2009 at 1:58 PM , Anonymous mrita said...

The reason this is black and white issue is the Church has always taught murder is gravely evil—size does not matter. This is the ultimate human rights issue--
without life there are no other civil liberties.

I have always wondered why those whom justify abortion in the case of abuse or rape—grey area--do not recommend the death penalty for the perpetrator. Why is it only the child must die?

At November 24, 2009 at 12:50 PM , Anonymous david said...



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