Monday, May 18, 2009

Obama at Notre Dame

The President's speech - as could be expected - was tactically masterful. He is a wordsmith of first order, but more, has a remarkable rhetorical ability to call for forms of higher reconciliation and transcendence of division that has otherwise been fomented by so many other politicians and opinion leaders of our age. While most on the Right either suspect him of bad faith, or impute such bad faith to him for political advantage, I believe he honestly desires to heal some of the worst divisions of the nation. His call yesterday both to include a "conscience clause" to protect professionals who object to the practice of abortion (and gay marriage?), and his call to reduce the number of abortions - including the commendation of adoption as an option - appeared to have been enthusiastically greeted by nearly everyone at the ceremony.

Yet, actions have too rarely accompanied the best words articulated by Obama. The call to "openness" will quickly be seen as an invitation to join him where he stands, not to reach out to others with whom he disagrees, if he does not act firmly and with determination in these areas that could go some distance to narrowing some divides.

That said, I thought part of his own speech - had it been articulated by a pro-life politician - could easily have been understood to be a critique of a regime committed officially to the idea that abortions are not morally condemnable. He was, clearly, speaking about our sins in relation to the economy. But are those sins and their motivations much different when considering the taking of unborn life?

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. 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 around the globe violence and want and strife that would seem sadly familiar to those in ancient times.


Change a few words here - very few - but none of the underlying moral considerations, and this is an argument against abortion. Perhaps we inch closer to a recognition that the deadly vices are not to be disaggregated. Obama was right to recognize their source - "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." The very pride that informs our politics makes it still difficult for our various political leaders to recognize that common cause lying behind the sins of our economy and the sins of our "reproductive rights" - indeed, to call something from either domain an individually vested right when in fact what we are ignoring is a duty owed to another.

2 comments:

Tim Lacy said...

Professor Deneen,

You wrote: "Perhaps we inch closer to a recognition that the deadly vices are not to be disaggregated." Well stated. But how do politically moderate/orthodox Catholics articulate this to their legalist anti-abortion orthodox brethren without the latter invoking John Paul II's exhortation (not ex cathedra, of course) to combat the legal regime of abortion rights? Is it enough to agree with Douglas Kmiec, Cafardi, etc. that one should exercise a kind of ~war-time prudence~ with regard to political candidates and the legal fight. And how do we convince the the same immoderate orthodox crowd that simply being anti-Roe is decidedly not good enough---ever. This goes to your point about disaggregation.

I pose these questions because it's clear that the most vocal Catholic bishops seem now, in contrast to the 1980s, to subscribe to the immoderate, legalist anti-abortion orthodoxy. Those folks are going to make life uncomfortable, for years, for those of us who seek a more pragmatic politics (with orthodoxy as the end and goal).

Yours,

Tim Lacy
Chicago, IL

Patrick Delaney said...

Professor Deneen:

Kudos on a well placed suggestion toward a "recognition that the deadly vices are not to be disaggregated."

Catholic bishops have a role. It is to define for their flock the difference between good and evil, and then hold to it. I find that many bishops, like many saints, tend to make people uncomfortable by drawing those lines precisely. It's a sign they are effective in their office.

But it really does not matter if their perspective is seen as orthodox, liberal or egalitarian. In the end, it is all subsumed into call for a more integrated acceptance of what can be common ground... and what cannot. What means to an end are acceptable, and what are not.

Dialog is good. Engagement is good. But they lose their purpose unless these are practiced with integrity as to the most basic principles, including always respecting human life regardless of the circumstance.

All the best,

Patrick Delaney
Washington, DC