Obama at Notre Dame: We Catholics Would Rather Fight than Mourn

Marian RonanThe following post is by Marian Ronan, Research Professor of Catholic Studies at the Center for World Christianity at New York Theological Seminary (NYC) and the author of Tracing the Sign of the Cross: Sexuality, Mourning, and the Future of American Catholicism.

One response to the uproar over the University of Notre Dame’s invitation to President Obama as its commencement speaker this year is to argue that it isn’t a Catholic matter at all. For Hendrik Hertzberg, the real division is between social conservatives and the rest; for others, the outcry constitutes Republican mischief, since most of the complainers are former McCain supporters.

But there’s something about this brouhaha that sounds pretty Catholic. Remember Geraldine Ferraro? Remember threats to deny John Kerry communion? Remember American Catholics accusing their bishops of protecting pedophiles? If Americans in general are good at fighting over sex, we American Catholics are the champs.

But why? There are complex historical developments that underpin the Catholic culture wars. Basically, however, I would argue that for conservatives and liberals alike, fighting over sexuality and gender is a way to avoid mourning the enormous losses that the Catholic Church sustained in the modern period and that postimmigrant, white ethnic American Catholics have sustained since the 1960s.

For the conservatives, such losses include the triumph of liberal democracy, the loss of the Vatican territories, and the abdication of absolute Catholic truth that came with Vatican II. For liberals, these losses involve the brutal amputation of hopes for a democratic church by the brilliant tactical moves of Pope John Paul II.

I do not mean to suggest here that abortion is not a serious question or that the monarchical governance structure of the church is not deplorable. But there’s something about the enraged, repetitive nature of the blows and counter-blows in the Catholic culture wars that corresponds almost perfectly with the classic definition of the inability to mourn: a depressive stance from which little or no change is forthcoming. Indeed, the white Catholic Church in the United States is in as serious a decline as are the mainline Protestant denominations. Large numbers of Latino/a and other immigrant Catholics would seem to offset this. But as a Latina colleague observed recently, the next generation of immigrants will have their own decisions to make; the move to evangelicalism is already noteworthy. In the meantime, sixty-some bishops and more than 300,000 American Catholics are denouncing Notre Dame, and James Carroll, the archetypal liberal Catholic, retorts that they are all fundamentalists.

Surely we can do better.

Leave a Reply