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Tonight I watched Doubt, a wonderful movie starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Meryl Streep, and Amy Adams. It’s a movie about a Catholic Church located in the bronx during the mid-1960′s. A Priest (played by Hoffman) is accused by a nun (Streep) of having an improper relationship with an altar boy. Never was there any indication of wrong doing. In fact, the Priest had been the boy’s sole protector and role model. However, the nun despised the progressive Priest and threatened to ruin his vocation with this accusation. In the end, it’s a film about faith, love, and change…
At least that’s how I interpreted it, but what do I know? I’m only college educated. After watching the film, which centers around a theme of child abuse committed by a Priest, a sensitive subject for Catholics like myself, I decided to see what other Catholics thought of the film. I was shocked to see that many would not even see the film, thinking that it was another Hollywood attack on the Church. The Catholic blogs that reviewed the film were generally dismissive. I only read one Catholic review that was mostly positive. However, one reviewer in particular got under my skin.
Here’s her review, which can be found at InsideCatholic.com:
“Of Certainty and Doubt
by Joan Frawley Desmond
The implosion of Catholic religious orders in the 1970s shook the foundations of the Catholic Church in America, threatening both the financial viability of parish schools and the transmission of faith and morals to subsequent generations. Decades later, the clergy sex-abuse crisis produced another earthquake from which the Church has yet to recover.
Most Catholics view these two developments as entirely separate. But John Patrick Shanley, the screenwriter and director of the newly released Doubt — the film adaptation of his award-winning, off-Broadway play of 2004 — draws out the clear and subtle connections between the exodus of nuns and the unchecked abuses of clerical predators.
Unfortunately, the film doesn’t succeed half as well as the play. The spare plot works better on stage, and Meryl Streep’s interpretation of the central character occasionally drifts into caricature. Still, Shanley’s meditation on the seismic shift in Catholic culture that converged with the Second Vatican Council helps us understand why an era that began with so much promise ended in such darkness and confusion.
Like the play, the action in the film occurs almost entirely within the confines of St. Nicholas School in the Bronx. The time is the mid-1960s, and the pervading mood is somber, brooding. Elsewhere in this prosperous nation, young America’s desire for increased spontaneity and creativity fuels the steadily growing pressure for social change.
Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), the school principal, is unimpressed by such youthful naiveté. Evil exists; original sin is not to be casually dismissed. Her sense of threat remains unshaken, and thus she repels the introduction of ballpoint pens and secular Christmas songs with continued vigor.
She wears her uneasy, suspicious nature like an uncomfortable hair shirt, barking out reprimands to the students and revealing little concern for their emotional life. The declining standards for student penmanship and the Christmas pageants deeply trouble her. Yet they are mere precursors for something or someone more dangerous — a coming, but still undefined force that will undermine the ordered existence of her school.
When Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) arrives in the parish and begins spouting newfangled ideas about a more compassionate Church, the principal smells trouble. Before long, Sister James (Amy Adams), the credulous young eighth-grade teacher, reports that Father Flynn requested a private meeting with an eighth-grade boy, who subsequently returned to class with alcohol on his breath.
Sister Aloysius rushes to the barricades. But what can she actually do, lacking both hard evidence or ultimate authority? Technically, Father Flynn is her superior in the parish; the pastor is unlikely to move against a fellow priest without solid proof.
The principal’s sole weapon remains her “certainty.” She confronts Father Flynn with her suspicions. He denies any wrongdoing, but offers a curiously muted explanation of his actions. Then, the priest turns the tables on the principal, putting her judgmental attitude on trial.
Father Flynn dismisses Sister Aloysius as a “dragon.” He is eager to discard the mantle of clerical authority in order to establish closer bonds with the students. The generational fissures surface slowly, and the future promises to inflict more damage on Sister Aloysius brittle psyche than on the easy-going disposition of her opponent. But is he a wolf in sheep’s clothing, or simply a creature of his time?
The principal’s next step is to call in the boy’s mother (Viola Davis). Shockingly, mom doesn’t want “trouble,” and begs Sister Aloysius to protect her son from any gossip or disciplinary actions that might force his departure from the school. “What kind of mother are you?” Sister Aloysius asks, as she grapples with something disturbing and novel — a parent who rejects her moral authority.
Consumed by a driving sense of responsibility for protecting her domain, the nun resorts to morally questionable tactics that appall Sister James. Yet, as Sister Aloysius tracks her prey with ferocious energy, the audience is left to speculate about the absence of such determination within diocesan chanceries that received complaints about abusive priests. Clericalism has been identified as one reason for the foot-dragging; the clubby world of priests is crudely evoked in the film.
Trendy, progressive ideas about guilt and responsibility also shaped episcopal decisions to schedule therapy sessions for sexual predators, rather than impose punitive measures that isolated them from children. Sister Aloysius, Shanley suggests, would never be seduced by faddish methods that contradicted the fundamentals of Christian realism.
Shanley touches on an additional explanation for the unchecked abuse of minors: a lack of courage on the part of Church authorities who feared confronting evildoers. Sister Aloysius’s own struggles underscore an unpleasant truth: Opposing evil is both morally and spiritually dangerous. This kind of combat is not for sissies, and it can poison the soul of the prosecutor.
Shanley shows considerable respect for Sister Aloysius. Her guile, passion, charity, and courage are on display here. At one point in the story, another nun who is going blind meets with an accident. If her disability is discovered, she could lose her place at the school. Sister Aloysius comes to her friend’s rescue, telling Father Flynn that most nuns trip on their robes and regularly fall like “dominoes.”
The incident reveals Sister Aloysius’s own brand of Christian compassion. But it also hints at the coming exodus of women religious. Despite her considerable moral authority and worldly experience, Sister Aloysius holds little real power to protect her students. Father Flynn possesses a bit more power, but not much wisdom. Could Sister Aloysius, that tower of certitude, become one of the “dominoes”?
Shanley leaves that question for his audience to decide. But Doubt evokes a haunted time before “the deluge.” Sharp-eyed parochial school principals sensed danger, but could do only so much to protect their charges.
Joan Frawley Desmond has written for the Wall Street Journal, First Things, and the National Catholic Register, among other publications.”
I was so outraged by the review, that I was literally compelled to write a response. The following is my response to the movie and to the review:
I do not think that we watched the same movie.
What I watched was a film about a conniving, self-righteous, vindictive nun, who took it upon herself to violate her vows, the Church’s hierarchy, and common decency by destroying a good Priest’s reputation. She had no proof, whatsoever, that Father Flynn was involved in an inappropriate relationship with the boy, yet she had her certainty. She regarded her own opinion as the final word– she was judge, jury, and executioner, as it were. Joan Frawley Desmond, the movie reviewer, lamely views Sister Aloysius’ prudish and conservative disposition as entirely proper, while seeming to cast a negative light upon Father Flynn, as though it were Priests such as him who molested alter boys. As Desmond put it, he was “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” I humbly suggest that it is people like Sister Aloysius and Joan Frawley Desmond who are the problem with the church, not Father Flynn.
Put the film in the proper historical context. The boy was an African-American, who had been chased from his previous school and, at that moment in time, had no hope for his future. Besides a violent home life, society at large was not entirely eager to accept African-Americans as equals. After-all, it had only been ten years previous when the Supreme Court made its famous Brown V. Board of Education ruling, and only a few years after the Supreme Court ruled again that schools had to immediately desegrate. This was a time of social change: a young President had been slain in public, Civil Rights were making legislative progress, and it seemed that the country was moving in a more tolerant direction. For some, like Joan Frawley Desmond and Sister Aloysius, tolerance might as well be a four letter word. But it is those sort of Calvinist and Puritanical tendencies our society has been trying to escape ever since our Founding Fathers created a country rooted in reason and Enlightenment principles. It took real “passion, charity, and courage” for Father Flynn to come to the boy’s aid and to show him the love he did not receive from home or society.
Father Flynn was a good man. His sermons were passionate. He was eager to engage and relate to the students, and he demonstrated love for them– love which our Lord demands we show to all people, especially children. But Father Flynn represented the winds of change. As our nation is currently experiencing, change is hard to accept for some. Sister Aloysius was not willing to accept that change was upon them. Father Flynn stood against the system, which Sister Aloysius jealously defended, that divided the clergy from the flock. We are all God’s children, and we are all called to serve him. The boy, who was also a victim of Sister Aloysius’ trickery, spoke to Father Flynn about his desire to enter the Priesthood, seeing Flynn as a mentor and a good male role model. It may very well be that the boy, after seeing the carnage wrecked upon Father Flynn, decided against joining the Priesthood. It may very well be the same sort of carnage that now prevents our young men from entering the Priesthood.
In the final analysis, it may very well be that this film is a form of Rorschach. For people like Joan Frawley Desmond and Sister Aloysius, this film demonstrates the “courage” of some to stick to their parochial and troglodytic ways, even if it involves ruining the life of an innocent man and an innnocent boy; for others, like myself, this film demonstrates the difficulty of bringing change to a system that is unwilling to evolve, and how that system would rather step away from God, our Father, in order to maintain the status quo. Father Flynn’s only crime was that he cared too much, unlike Sister Aloysius, the Warden, who’s crime was hate and villainy.
In closing, I would call the reviewer’s attention to the beautiful opening of the film. Father Flynn begins mass with a wonderful sermon about doubt. It is at this point that it is obvious that Sister Aloysius has a problem with him. She even interrupts the nuns’ rivetingly silent dinner to seek their thoughts on Father Flynn’s sermon. Why? It is obvious. She is jealous that Father Flynn is so passionate and strong in his fidelity to God, because, as we learn in the final twenty seconds or so of the film, Sister Aloysius has doubts. Her faith in God is weak. It almost seems as though there is an inverse relationship between her vindictiveness and the unwavering faith of Father Flynn. While her final words of the film express her doubt in God, Father Flynn’s final words are one of acceptance– acceptance that God has superior knowledge (more superior, one would assume, than Sister Aloysius’), and as such God’s judgement should not be questioned.
Father Flynn is content with the winds of change at his back, while Sister Aloysius is left crying in the snow, her inferior, Sister James, feeling both contempt and pity for her. Who is better off?
This was a really good movie, and I recommend it for everyone, especially Catholics. Below, I’ve added the trailer. Take a look!
By Jose Rodriguez
As a Catholic I am embarrassed and ashamed.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has come out in opposition to President Obama’s health care reform efforts, despite its long-standing support for health care reform. In fact, the USCCB has long supported health care reform that includes a single-payer system to cover the uninsured, the poor, and illegal immigrants. Yet, in the last couple of months, the USCCB has come out against the current health care reform bill.
The USCCB has aligned itself with Beck, Hannity, Limbaugh, and Hannity by asserting that the current health care reform efforts would encourage euthanasia of the elderly, deny health care to the disabled, and would force tax payers to pay for elective abortions and bar doctors from invoking the conscience clause. The accusations read as though they were copy and pasted from Sarah Palin’s facebook page. They are advancing paranoid arguments against what is inarguably the most important health care legislation in the last fifty years. But why?
One can only speculate, but it might be partisan, it could be ignorance (they have not read the bills), or it could be any number of things.
This is tragic, as far as I’m concerned. I have been proud of my church’s stance on science (particularly evolution), Global Climate Change, the poor, and advocating for a more just and fair global economy. Universal health care was another issue my Church supported, which made me proud to call myself a Catholic. However, the USCCB’s current mental status has me quite concerned.
But the USCCB, which does not have any authority whatsoever, has come under fire from Bishops from around the globe. An editorial on a Catholic British website has chastised Bishops in the U.S. for their failure to stand up for a basic pro-life issue: universal health care. The Tablet editorial argues that the Bishops in the United States are wasting an opportunity where they “could play a central role in salvaging Mr Obama’s health-care programme.” Instead, the U.S. Bishops are trying to advance an anti-abortion agenda when everyone has agreed that the bill should be neutral on this issue, “rather than the more general principle of the common good.” As the editorial notes, nearly 50 million Americans are without health care, and this tragedy is only likely to worsen, as the health care industry is “[sensing] a threat to their profits” and are spending 1.5 million dollars a day to kill health care reform. Rather than attend to the poor, the USCCB has decided that they would rather turn this reform effort into a battle over abortion. The Tablet editorial makes a great point, however: the “National Health Service, one of the great forward strides for social justice, had no Catholic blessing,” yet is one of the most enduring and popular government programs in England.
This is clearly a dereliction of duty.
It has been clearly documented that the current health care reform effort does not force tax payers to fund (directly or indirectly) elective abortions. Nor are there any death panels for the elderly or disabled.
I can’t believe that the USCCB actually believes this! All they have to do is read the bill! Again are the Bishops lazy? Are they politically motivated? Are they this ignorant? What is the deal?
Republicans have come to the conclusion that Americans want health care reform, and they have come to the conclusion that a majority of Americans and American doctors support the public option. Despite months of promoting lies, and encouraging people to attend and disrupt town hall meetings in order to create the impression that a majority of Americans oppose any health care reform, 73% of doctors support either a single-payer system (10%) or a mostly private system that includes a public option (63%), and 77% of Americans support a public option. And I know what you’re thinking: “How can that be? What was the poll question?” Well, here was what SurveyUSA asked: “In any health care proposal, how important do you feel it is to give people a choice of both a public plan administered by the federal government and a private plan for their health insurance–extremely important, quite important, not that important, or not at all important?”
So, faced with overwhelming support for health care reform (including the public option) from Americans and doctors, Republicans have started arguing that the health care bill will pay for elective abortions. There is not a single grain of truth to this argument, which apparently does not matter to the USCCB.
Let’s deconstruct this nonsense…
In an op-ed for National Review (an ultra-Conservative publication), on July 23, 2009, Minority Leader John Boehner wrote that President Obama was trying to expand abortion by sneaking it through his health care reform effort and would force American tax-payers to fund abortions. Boehner also accused the President of trying to undermine organizations (like the Catholic Church) that do not support or perform abortions by making it illegal for them to deny abortion services. The biggest lie (which he labels a “fact”) is this: “This public plan, like all plans, will be required to classify abortion as an “essential benefit,” forcing American citizens to directly subsidize abortion-on-demand with their tax dollars.”
These baseless accusations have energized anti-abortion advocates, like the Catholic Church, into opposing what is an essential and basic pro-life issue.
It is important to remember that the Hyde Amendment (passed in 1976) bans the use of federal funds for elective abortions. This law does not apply in cases of rape, incest, or when the mother’s life is in mortal danger. So, before any substantive discussion can begin, we must remember that it is against the law to do what John Boehner is suggesting President Obama wants to do. President Obama, who has admitted that he is pro-choice and has a 100% rating with NARAL, has said that he thinks “we… have a tradition of, in this town, historically, of not financing abortions as part of government-funded health care.” This statement, though it goes against his own personal beliefs, is consistent with the law and consistent with
public opinion. In a recent Rasmussen poll, 48% of Americans do not want tax dollars to pay for elective abortions, while only 13% think that any health care bill should use tax-payer funds to cover abortion. 32% of Americans believe that there should not be a requirement either way.
What Minority leader John Boehner (and the USCCB) does not understand is that most private health insurance policies already cover abortion, whether or not people realize it. This would not change under any health care reform bill, thus making it abortion-neutral. But there’s more.
While there are five different health care bills in Congress right now, H.R. 3200 is the most talked about. H.R. 3200, for instance, has an amendment authored by Lois Capps (D-Ca), which specifically prohibits tax-payer funds from being used to pay for abortions. The bill is only seven pages long, and it is triple spaced, so it should not take long to read, however, no one cares to read it. And those who have, have consciously twisted her language to fit their narrow view.
The Capps Amendment would not require abortion coverage to be part of the minimum benefits package, as many claim it would. It would be up to the insurer whether or not the plan covers abortion… as it stands now. I will simply quote the bill:
“The Health Benefits Advisory Committee may not recommend under section 123 (b) and the Secretary may not adopt in standards under section 124(b), the services described in paragraph (4)(A) or (4) (B) as part of the essential benefits package and the Commissioner may not require such services for qualified health benefits plans to participate in the Health Insurance Exchange.”
This seems pretty straightforward, but, again, there are people who want to twist and fabricate. The bill clearly states that abortion coverage is not required for the minimum benefits package in order to “participate in the Health Insurance Exchange.” In section two, Capps goes further: “VOLUNTARY CHOICE OF COVERAGE BY PLAN.-In the case of a qualified health benefits plan, the plan is not required (or prohibited) under this Act from providing coverage of services described in paragraph (4) (A) or (4)(B) and the QHBP offering entity shall determine whether such coverage is provided.”
The amendment authored by Lois Capps is straightforward (again) in preventing tax-payer funds from being used to cover elective abortions. The Capps amendment requires insurers to segregate the cost of abortion coverage from the premiums, which would be paid for by the insured, not tax-payers. The public option may or may not include abortion coverage, but, again, the cost of that would be paid out of the pocket of the insured, not the tax-payers. Again, here are the words from the amendment:
“(T)he plan shall provide assurances satisfactory to the Commissioner that- (A) any affordability credits provided under subtitle C of title II are not used for purposes of paying for such services; and (B) only premium amounts attributable to the actuarial value described in section 113(b) are used for such purpose.”
The Capps amendment also defers to the Hyde amendment, which prohibits tax-payer funds from being used to pay for abortion services. It clearly states, in no uncertain terms, that the bill would have “No EFFECT ON FEDERAL LAWS REGARDING ABORTION.” Um… that includes the Hyde amendment, in case you are a Republican or an American Catholic Bishop.
Despite the concerns of the USCCB (raised by John Boehner in his op-ed), the health care proposals would not make it illegal to deny abortion services. The Capps amendment makes this point clearly, if they would only take five minutes to read the damn bill:
“Nothing in this Act shall be construed to have any effect on Federal laws regardin- (A) conscience protection; (B) willingness or refusal to provide abortion; and (C) discrimination on the basis of the willingness or refusal to provide, pay for, cover, or refer for abortion or to provide or participate in training to provide abortion.”
How can this be any clearer? Notice that it says, “Nothing in this Act shall be construed,” yet that is exactly what Boehner, the GOP, and the USCCB are doing: CONSTRUING!
Another point of concern for the GOP and the USCCB is that Obama is creating “death panels.” This has been refuted time and time again, yet there is this persistent element in our society who refuses to accept… oh, I don’t know, facts? The elderly and the disabled will not be subjected to any “death panel.” It’s as pure and simple as that.
The section that has been mis-represent by Sarah Palin, the GOP, and the USCCB, is on the establishment of a Comparative Effectiveness Research Center, which will “conduct, support, and synthesize research” that looks at “outcomes, effectiveness, and appropriateness of health care services and procedures in order to identify the manner in which diseases, disorders, and other health conditions can most effectively and appropriately be prevented, diagnosed, treated, and managed clinically.” This is no death panel. This is not a scheme to promote euthanasia for the elderly or disabled. Instead, the CERC will study which treatments are the most effective, thus providing patients and doctors better information and tools for sustaining and extending life, not ending it ASAP. Beyond that, the CERC would only make recommendations about the best methods, not make requirements. The bill makes that absolutely clear: “Nothing in this section shall be construed to permit the Commission or the Center to mandate coverage, reimbursement, or other policies for any public or private payer.” Again, there is that word “construed.” Does the USCCB or GOP not have access to a dictionary?
The bill also allows seniors to have end-of-life counseling with their doctor, which would be tax-payer funded. Despite the ridiculous claims made by Sarah Palin, these would be voluntary sessions, not mandatory. “It turns out that I guess this arose out of a provision in one of the House bills that allowed Medicare to reimburse people for consultations about end-of-life care, setting up living wills, the availability of hospice, etc.,” Obama said. “So the intention of the members of Congress was to give people more information so that they could handle issues of end-of-life care when they’re ready on their own terms. It wasn’t forcing anybody to do anything.”
The “Advanced Care Planning Consultation” in Section 1233 is not a scheme to encourage patients to pull their own “plug”. It is actually supported by AARP, which is a group that advocates for senior citizens. On the AARP site, they devote a page to debunk the absurd notion that end of life counseling is a back-door for euthanasia. They write that “Several studies in recent years have found that when doctors have end-of-life discussions with patients and families, patients have less anxiety.” The study found that “Less aggressive care and earlier hospice referrals were associated with better patient quality of life near death,” whereas those who failed to engage in those discussions “experienced worse quality of life, more regret, and were at higher risk of developing a major depressive disorder.” In other words, as people age it becomes increasingly important to know the available options. One doctor even expressed that it is in the best interest of the doctor to keep the patient alive in order to avoid lawsuits. So, for those who cannot comprehend morality, there are also financial reasons to extend the life of patients.
But beyond the needs of the patient, the counseling is also important for the family, who often argue or agonize over what their loved one would want, in the event that they are incapacitated. Having a clearly defined living will prevents the hand-wringing and guilt: the will of the patient is clear and decisive, even if it means a kidney transplant for an unconscious 89 year old man.
At this point, it is hardly worth debating with the lunatic/ paranoid fringe, with which the USCCB has aligned itself. All the facts are known, they are out there, but they choose to expose themselves to conspiracy theories, which only serve to support their fears. In an excellent editorial in today’s LA Times, Gregory Rodriguez argues that it might not be useful to try to educate people who cling to conspiracy theories. He cites a study in which conservatives, when presented with information proving that there were no WMDs in Iraq, believed even more strongly that there were WMDs in Iraq. Instead of putting down these buyers of misinformation and rumors, Rodriguez writes: “Rumors and conspiracy theories often supply simplified, easily digestible explanations (and enemies) to sum up complex situations. However crass, they’re both fueled by a desire to make sense of the world.”
He may very well be right.
I am heartened, however, to see that not all Catholics have given themselves over to madness.
Chris Korzen of Catholics United has come out strong against the USCCB, Stop the Abortion Mandate, Family Research Council, and the Catholic League, who have been promoting lies and misinformation, not to mention misrepresenting Catholic teachings. Korzen, on the Catholics United site, writes “The Family Research Council’s continued effort to distort the facts leads one to wonder whether the group’s true intent is to derail health care reform,” said Korzen. “Instead of issuing misleading attacks and inciting fear, the Family Research Council would do better to support efforts aimed at implementing abortion-neutral policies in health care reform legislation.” Catholic Charities, a non-profit Catholic organization that provides food and clothing to the poor, has been fully committed to health care reform saying “Health care reform: We can’t wait!” Though it maintains that it will not support any bill that extends abortion rights, it seems to enthusiastically support the current reform efforts, implying that it does not support the wild accusations of the USCCB.
There is also some indication that there is a schism between U.S. Bishops. Bishop Michael Sheehan told the National Catholic Reporter that the anger against Obama among U.S. Bishops comes mostly from a small minority, but the majority of centrist Bishops do not want a public fight over health care, so they have not spoken up. The Catholic News Service also reported that U.S. Bishops were glad to hear from President Obama, in his speech before a joint session of Congress, that his proposal would not allow for tax-payer funded abortions. “We were gratified to hear that federal funds would not be used for abortions and that conscience protections would be maintained,” Sister Carol Keehan said. “We were pleased to hear him say we were going to move on now. There are too many people … who need this kind of (health care) assistance. We believe it is long overdue. It is a moral and economic imperative and we were pleased to hear him put it in those terms.”
This was not an easy blog to write. I love my Church. I am pained to see what is happening from conservative Catholics in the hierarchy, who are using their position to advance their own personal, partisan beliefs. But it makes me angry, too. I am pro-life. I oppose abortion, I oppose the death penalty, I support the environment, and I support social justice. But you know what? I also support the truth. I do not support lies or fabrications, no matter who is telling them.
I pray that they come out of their intellectual darkness, and into the light of truth.
First of all, for those who are unaware, I am a practicing Catholic. Now…
Conservative Catholics have lost their minds. They have confused their faith with their extreme right-wing ideology. These wayward souls have even gone so far as to align themselves with right-wing Christian groups who hate the Catholic Church, have likened the Pope to the anti-christ, and regard the Church as inherently evil. Have these Catholic Conservatives no shame? Do they not realize that they have made a pact with people who hate them and are only using them for political gain?
The reason I write this today is because President Barack Obama gave the commencement address at Notre Dame, where he was also given an honorary degree. Conservative Catholics, along with their right-wing Christian/Republican friends, have gone mad over this development. Michael Steele, the Republican National Committee Chairman, said it was “inappropriate” for Notre Dame to give Obama an honorary degree. Other U.S.Catholic leaders have rebuked Notre Dame for its invitation of President Barack Obama and intend to boycott his visit to the University. The president of the Catholic League, Bill Donahue, was quite vocal in his opposition to the President’s presence at Notre Dame, saying, “To give him an honorary degree would be like Howard University giving David Duke a degree in racial politics.” Donahue, keep in mind, is a flaming Republican, who rarely speaks out against the shortcomings of Conservative politicians. Only 55 American Bishops (roughly 20%) have complained about Obam’s address, as have some Cardinals including James Francis Stafford. He has gone so far as to say that Obama has “an agenda and vision that are aggressive, disruptive and apocalyptic.” Strong words, but do they reflect reality?
The protests against the President’s address at Notre Dame included Alan Keyes, and other Republican figures. As many as 39 people have been arrested because of the address, including Norma McCorvey, better known as “Roe,” the plaintiff in the Roe v. Wade case that made abortion legal. She has since become a pro-life activist. Protesters, including Keyes, were pushing strollers containing dolls covered in fake blood. Among those who were arrested was a Priest, who complained aloud, “Notre Dame is arresting a priest. Why are you arresting a priest for trying to stop the killing of a baby? You’ve got it all backward.” Well, apparently trespassing is illegal, and that was why he was arrested, along with Keyes. Many of the critics of the decision to invite the President have also called for the resignation of Notre Dame’s President Rev. John I. Jenkins, gathering some 360,000 online signatures. Though the protests and criticisms have been strong, Jenkins has been quiet and resolved. He did, however, put out a statement: In a statement well before the ceremony, Jenkins wrote that the invitation: This “does not mean we support all of his positions … [on] abortion and embryonic stem cell research.”
In what appears to be a somewhat silent break with American Catholic officials, the Vatican has been mum on the controversy. In late April, for instance, the Vatican’s official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, essentially chastised the American Catholic leadership for exaggerated “forceful concerns”. The document, though pointing out differences with President Obama, seems to be reaching out to the new President: “On ethical questions, too — which from the time of the electoral campaign have been the subject of strong worries by the Catholic bishops — Obama does not seem to have confirmed the radical innovations that he had discussed.” In other words, he is not the radical they worried about initially. Indeed, the Vatican seems more interested in building stronger ties to Jewish and Muslim communites, as well as encouraging progress on peace in the middle-east. Since Obama’s election, the Vatican has shown signs that they are quite impressed and enthusiastic about the new President, and their silence on this issue is yet another sign that the Vatican is looking forward to working with this administration on a range of issues including, Global Climate Change, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, combating poverty, encouraging fairer economic policies for poor families, health care, a living wage, working with women who are pregnant in order to help them choose life over abortion, and a whole host of other issues.
In short, the Vatican and the Obama administration have far more issues in common than issues that divide them.
The same is true of Catholic American laity. 67% of Catholics approve of the way he is running the country, according to a Pew Poll. Pew also found that half of American Catholics supported Notre Dame’s invitation of Obama, while only 28% opposed the invitation. 22% had no opinion. Just as a reminder, it is also important to remember that Obama won 54% of the Catholic vote in November’s election. Again, it is the small, albeit vocal, group of Conservative Catholics who confuse their allegiance to the GOP with their faith that are opposed to Obama’s commencement address.
As President Barack Obama took the stage and began his speech before the 12,000 people, there were some boos, which were interrupted and quieted by the graduating class and commencement audience. One heckler was likewise heckled until silenced. Before he spoke, Rev. Jenkins praised the President for his ability to speak with people who disagree with him, unlike those “who [stop] talking to those who disagree with him.” This was a not-so subtle jab at those who opposed Obama’s address. As the President spoke, he was supported with cheers, loud applause, and standing ovations. Many students had the words “Viva Obama” written on their caps. Critics wondered what Obama could possibly say, assuming, I suppose, that being pro-choice would only confound him whilst among a pro-life audience. Instead, as the President often does, he reached out to the critics, offering an opportunity for “fair minded” discussions about abortion. Striking a different tone than those zealots who would shut him up, he also highlighted their similarities: “Let us work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions. Let’s reduce unintended pregnancies. Let’s make adoption more available. Let’s provide care and support for women who do carry their child to term.” He recognized that “no matter how much we want to fudge it … the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable,” but he urged that people stop “reducing those with differing views to caricature. Open hearts. Open minds. Fair-minded words. It’s a way of life that always has been the Notre Dame tradition.” “I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away,” the president said. “Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature.” His speech was quite inspiring, and it demonstrates the President’s commitment to bridging the gap between “enemies” with communication. He’s a uniter, not a divider.
But it was not only the President asking for “fair-minded” discussions, the Valedictorian, Brennan Bollman, (in an interview with the Huffington Post) said that “this issue has not divided the campus by any means,” because the President is bringing “everyone to the table.” In response to those Catholics who have seen red over the President’s address, Bollman responded: “We know exactly what it is to be Catholic because we are inviting President Obama to speak to us.” She even went as far as to say that President Obama has “given [respect] to human life through many of his policies,” adding that many of his policies reflected Catholic values: “President Obama takes a lot of pro-life positions. I don’t think that he is strongly pro-abortion.”
Catholics, like myself, are proud of the President’s speech. We’ll see how the Conservatives will respond.
Below is the full text of the address:
Well, first of all, congratulations, Class of 2009. Congratulations to all the parents, the cousins — the aunts, the uncles — all the people who helped to bring you to the point that you are here today. Thank you so much to Father Jenkins for that extraordinary introduction, even though you said what I want to say much more elegantly. You are doing an extraordinary job as president of this extraordinary institution. Your continued and courageous — and contagious — commitment to honest, thoughtful dialogue is an inspiration to us all.
Good afternoon. To Father Hesburgh, to Notre Dame trustees, to faculty, to family: I am honored to be here today. And I am grateful to all of you for allowing me to be a part of your graduation.
And I also want to thank you for the honorary degree that I received. I know it has not been without controversy. I dont know if youre aware of this, but these honorary degrees are apparently pretty hard to come by. So far I’m only 1 for 2 as President. Father Hesburgh is 150 for 150. I guess that’s better. So, Father Ted, after the ceremony, maybe you can give me some pointers to boost my average.
I also want to congratulate the Class of 2009 for all your accomplishments. And since this is Notre Dame …
(Speech is interrupted by anti-abortion protesters.)
We’re fine, everybody. We’re following Brennans adage that we dont do things easily. We’re not going to shy away from things that are uncomfortable sometimes.
Now, since this is Notre Dame I think we should talk not only about your accomplishments in the classroom, but also in the competitive arena. No, dont worry, I’m not going to talk about that. We all know about this university’s proud and storied football team, but I also hear that Notre Dame holds the largest outdoor 5-on-5 basketball tournament in the world — Bookstore Basketball.
Now this excites me. I want to congratulate the winners of this year’s tournament, a team by the name of “Hallelujah Holla Back.” Congratulations. Well done. Though I have to say, I am personally disappointed that the “Barack OBallers” did not pull it out this year. So next year, if you need a 6-2 forward with a decent jumper, you know where I live.
Every one of you should be proud of what you have achieved at this institution. One hundred and sixty-three classes of Notre Dame graduates have sat where you sit today. Some were here during years that simply rolled into the next without much notice or fanfare — periods of relative peace and prosperity that required little by way of sacrifice or struggle.
You, however, are not getting off that easy. You have a different deal. Your class has come of age at a moment of great consequence for our nation and for the world — a rare inflection point in history where the size and scope of the challenges before us require that we remake our world to renew its promise; that we align our deepest values and commitments to the demands of a new age. It’s a privilege and a responsibility afforded to few generations — and a task that youre now called to fulfill.
This generation, your generation is the one that must find a path back to prosperity and decide how we respond to a global economy that left millions behind even before the most recent crisis hit — an economy where greed and short-term thinking were too often rewarded at the expense of fairness, and diligence, and an honest day’s work.
Your generation must decide how to save God’s creation from a changing climate that threatens to destroy it. Your generation must seek peace at a time when there are those who will stop at nothing to do us harm, and when weapons in the hands of a few can destroy the many. And we must find a way to reconcile our ever-shrinking world with its ever-growing diversity — diversity of thought, diversity of culture, and diversity of belief.
In short, we must find a way to live together as one human family. And it’s this last challenge that Id like to talk about today, despite the fact that Father John stole all my best lines. For the major threats we face in the 21st century — whether it’s global recession or violent extremism; the spread of nuclear weapons or pandemic disease — these things do not discriminate. They do not recognize borders. They do not see color. They do not target specific ethnic groups.
Moreover, no one person, or religion, or nation can meet these challenges alone. Our very survival has never required greater cooperation and greater understanding among all people from all places than at this moment in history.
Unfortunately, finding that common ground — recognizing that our fates are tied up, as Dr. King said, in a “single garment of destiny” — is not easy. And part of the problem, of course, lies in the imperfections of man — our selfishness, our pride, our stubbornness, our acquisitiveness, our insecurities, our egos; all the cruelties large and small that those of us in the Christian tradition understand to be rooted in original sin. We too often seek advantage over others. We cling to outworn prejudice and fear those who are unfamiliar. Too many of us view life only through the lens of immediate self-interest and crass materialism; in which the world is necessarily a zero-sum game. The strong too often dominate the weak, and too many of those with wealth and with power find all manner of justification for their own privilege in the face of poverty and injustice. And so, for all our technology and scientific advances, we see here in this country and around the globe violence and want and strife that would seem sadly familiar to those in ancient times.
We know these things; and hopefully one of the benefits of the wonderful education that you’ve received here at Notre Dame is that you’ve had time to consider these wrongs in the world; perhaps recognized impulses in yourself that you want to leave behind. You’ve grown determined, each in your own way, to right them. And yet, one of the vexing things for those of us interested in promoting greater understanding and cooperation among people is the discovery that even bringing together persons of good will, bringing together men and women of principle and purpose — even accomplishing that can be difficult.
The soldier and the lawyer may both love this country with equal passion, and yet reach very different conclusions on the specific steps needed to protect us from harm. The gay activist and the evangelical pastor may both deplore the ravages of HIV/AIDS, but find themselves unable to bridge the cultural divide that might unite their efforts. Those who speak out against stem cell research may be rooted in an admirable conviction about the sacredness of life, but so are the parents of a child with juvenile diabetes who are convinced that their son’s or daughter’s hardships can be relieved.
The question, then — the question then is how do we work through these conflicts? Is it possible for us to join hands in common effort? As citizens of a vibrant and varied democracy, how do we engage in vigorous debate? How does each of us remain firm in our principles, and fight for what we consider right, without, as Father John said, demonizing those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side?
And of course, nowhere do these questions come up more powerfully than on the issue of abortion.
As I considered the controversy surrounding my visit here, I was reminded of an encounter I had during my Senate campaign, one that I describe in a book I wrote called “The Audacity of Hope.” A few days after I won the Democratic nomination, I received an e-mail from a doctor who told me that while he voted for me in the Illinois primary, he had a serious concern that might prevent him from voting for me in the general election. He described himself as a Christian who was strongly pro-life — but that was not what was preventing him potentially from voting for me.
What bothered the doctor was an entry that my campaign staff had posted on my Web site — an entry that said I would fight “right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman’s right to choose.” The doctor said he had assumed I was a reasonable person, he supported my policy initiatives to help the poor and to lift up our educational system, but that if I truly believed that every pro-life individual was simply an ideologue who wanted to inflict suffering on women, then I was not very reasonable. He wrote, “I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words.” Fair-minded words.
After I read the doctor’s letter, I wrote back to him and I thanked him. And I didn’t change my underlying position, but I did tell my staff to change the words on my Web site. And I said a prayer that night that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me. Because when we do that — when we open up our hearts and our minds to those who may not think precisely like we do or believe precisely what we believe — that’s when we discover at least the possibility of common ground.
That’s when we begin to say, “Maybe we won’t agree on abortion, but we can still agree that this heart-wrenching decision for any woman is not made casually, it has both moral and spiritual dimensions.”
So let us work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions, let’s reduce unintended pregnancies. Let’s make adoption more available. Let’s provide care and support for women who do carry their children to term. Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded not only in sound science, but also in clear ethics, as well as respect for the equality of women.” Those are things we can do.
Now, understand — understand, Class of 2009, I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. Because no matter how much we may want to fudge it — indeed, while we know that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory — the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable. Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature.
Open hearts. Open minds. Fair-minded words. It’s a way of life that has always been the Notre Dame tradition. Father Hesburgh has long spoken of this institution as both a lighthouse and a crossroads. A lighthouse that stands apart, shining with the wisdom of the Catholic tradition, while the crossroads is where “differences of culture and religion and conviction can coexist with friendship, civility, hospitality, and especially love.” And I want to join him and Father John in saying how inspired I am by the maturity and responsibility with which this class has approached the debate surrounding today’s ceremony. You are an example of what Notre Dame is about.
This tradition of cooperation and understanding is one that I learned in my own life many years ago — also with the help of the Catholic Church.
You see, I was not raised in a particularly religious household, but my mother instilled in me a sense of service and empathy that eventually led me to become a community organizer after I graduated college. And a group of Catholic churches in Chicago helped fund an organization known as the Developing Communities Project, and we worked to lift up South Side neighborhoods that had been devastated when the local steel plant closed.
And it was quite an eclectic crew — Catholic and Protestant churches, Jewish and African American organizers, working-class black, white, and Hispanic residents — all of us with different experiences, all of us with different beliefs. But all of us learned to work side by side because all of us saw in these neighborhoods other human beings who needed our help — to find jobs and improve schools. We were bound together in the service of others.
And something else happened during the time I spent in these neighborhoods — perhaps because the church folks I worked with were so welcoming and understanding; perhaps because they invited me to their services and sang with me from their hymnals; perhaps because I was really broke and they fed me. Perhaps because I witnessed all of the good works their faith inspired them to perform, I found myself drawn not just to the work with the church; I was drawn to be in the church. It was through this service that I was brought to Christ.
And at the time, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin was the Archbishop of Chicago. For those of you too young to have known him or known of him, he was a kind and good and wise man. A saintly man. I can still remember him speaking at one of the first organizing meetings I attended on the South Side. He stood as both a lighthouse and a crossroads — unafraid to speak his mind on moral issues ranging from poverty and AIDS and abortion to the death penalty and nuclear war. And yet, he was congenial and gentle in his persuasion, always trying to bring people together, always trying to find common ground. Just before he died, a reporter asked Cardinal Bernardin about this approach to his ministry. And he said, “You can’t really get on with preaching the Gospel until you’ve touched hearts and minds.”
My heart and mind were touched by him. They were touched by the words and deeds of the men and women I worked alongside in parishes across Chicago. And Id like to think that we touched the hearts and minds of the neighborhood families whose lives we helped change. For this, I believe, is our highest calling.
Now, you, Class of 2009, are about to enter the next phase of your life at a time of great uncertainty. You’ll be called to help restore a free market that’s also fair to all who are willing to work. You’ll be called to seek new sources of energy that can save our planet; to give future generations the same chance that you had to receive an extraordinary education. And whether as a person drawn to public service, or simply someone who insists on being an active citizen, you will be exposed to more opinions and ideas broadcast through more means of communication than ever existed before. You’ll hear talking heads scream on cable, and you’ll read blogs that claim definitive knowledge, and you will watch politicians pretend they know what they’re talking about. Occasionally, you may have the great fortune of actually seeing important issues debated by people who do know what they’re talking about — by well-intentioned people with brilliant minds and mastery of the facts. In fact, I suspect that some of you will be among those brightest stars.
And in this world of competing claims about what is right and what is true, have confidence in the values with which you’ve been raised and educated. Be unafraid to speak your mind when those values are at stake. Hold firm to your faith and allow it to guide you on your journey. In other words, stand as a lighthouse.
But remember, too, that you can be a crossroads. Remember, too, that the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt. It’s the belief in things not seen. It’s beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us or what He asks of us. And those of us who believe must trust that His wisdom is greater than our own.
And this doubt should not push us away our faith. But it should humble us. It should temper our passions, cause us to be wary of too much self-righteousness. It should compel us to remain open and curious and eager to continue the spiritual and moral debate that began for so many of you within the walls of Notre Dame. And within our vast democracy, this doubt should remind us even as we cling to our faith to persuade through reason, through an appeal whenever we can to universal rather than parochial principles, and most of all through an abiding example of good works and charity and kindness and service that moves hearts and minds.
For if there is one law that we can be most certain of, it is the law that binds people of all faiths and no faith together. It’s no coincidence that it exists in Christianity and Judaism; in Islam and Hinduism; in Buddhism and humanism. It is, of course, the Golden Rule — the call to treat one another as we wish to be treated. The call to love. The call to serve. To do what we can to make a difference in the lives of those with whom we share the same brief moment on this Earth.
So many of you at Notre Dame — by the last count, upwards of 80 percent — have lived this law of love through the service you’ve performed at schools and hospitals; international relief agencies and local charities. Brennan is just one example of what your class has accomplished. That’s incredibly impressive, a powerful testament to this institution.
Now you must carry the tradition forward. Make it a way of life. Because when you serve, it doesn’t just improve your community, it makes you a part of your community. It breaks down walls. It fosters cooperation. And when that happens — when people set aside their differences, even for a moment, to work in common effort toward a common goal; when they struggle together, and sacrifice together, and learn from one another — then all things are possible.
After all, I stand here today, as President and as an African American, on the 55th anniversary of the day that the Supreme Court handed down the decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Now, Brown was of course the first major step in dismantling the “separate but equal” doctrine, but it would take a number of years and a nationwide movement to fully realize the dream of civil rights for all of God’s children. There were freedom rides and lunch counters and Billy clubs, and there was also a Civil Rights Commission appointed by President Eisenhower. It was the 12 resolutions recommended by this commission that would ultimately become law in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
There were six members of this commission. It included five whites and one African American; Democrats and Republicans; two Southern governors, the dean of a Southern law school, a Midwestern university president, and your own Father Ted Hesburgh, President of Notre Dame. So they worked for two years, and at times, President Eisenhower had to intervene personally since no hotel or restaurant in the South would serve the black and white members of the commission together. And finally, when they reached an impasse in Louisiana, Father Ted flew them all to Notre Dame’s retreat in Land OLakes, Wisconsin — where they eventually overcame their differences and hammered out a final deal.
And years later, President Eisenhower asked Father Ted how on Earth he was able to broker an agreement between men of such different backgrounds and beliefs. And Father Ted simply said that during their first dinner in Wisconsin, they discovered they were all fishermen. And so he quickly readied a boat for a twilight trip out on the lake. They fished, and they talked, and they changed the course of history.
I will not pretend that the challenges we face will be easy, or that the answers will come quickly, or that all our differences and divisions will fade happily away — because life is not that simple. It never has been. But as you leave here today, remember the lessons of Cardinal Bernardin, of Father Hesburgh, of movements for change both large and small. Remember that each of us, endowed with the dignity possessed by all children of God, has the grace to recognize ourselves in one another; to understand that we all seek the same love of family, the same fulfillment of a life well lived. Remember that in the end, in some way we are all fishermen.
If nothing else, that knowledge should give us faith that through our collective labor, and God’s providence, and our willingness to shoulder each other’s burdens, America will continue on its precious journey towards that more perfect union. Congratulations, Class of 2009. May God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America.