The White House and liberal Catholic groups appear to have been caught off guard by the furor over President Obama's forthcoming appearance at Notre Dame. Catholics United, a progressive Catholic group with close ties to the White House, has just released a defense of Notre Dame and Obama's appearance there.
What took so long? The controversy erupted shortly after the White House announced Obama's spring commencement schedule last Friday. That was 120 hours ago.
Compare this response to Catholic United's performance around the White House rollout of Kathleen Sebelius as the nominee to lead the Department of Health and Human Services a few weeks back. Tipped off by the White House—which knew Sebelius, a Catholic supporter of abortion rights, would irk conservative Catholics—Catholics United was up and running with its Catholics for Sebelius website on the Saturday night the Sebelius news broke. The group's tardy response on Notre Dame suggests that the White House skipped the pregame strategizing this time around.
Something else surprised me about Catholic United's press release today. It attacks leading critics of Notre Dame's invitation to Obama as "partisan operatives who routinely use a single-issue analysis to divorce the Catholic faith from its longstanding commitment to social justice and the sanctity of all human life."
Does that include the Catholic bishop of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, who has blasted Notre Dame for hosting Obama?
Gilgoff goes on to point out that progressive Catholics usually take more care so as not to appear that they're not on the same page with Church leaders. All in all, an interesting insight.
What we've seen so far from those defending Notre Dame has been a pretty mixed bag; my paraphrases follow:
1. The Garnett repsonse: Obama shouldn't have been invited, especially considering his recent actions in re: ESCR. But Notre Dame is a School that Matters, and shouldn't be subject to all the harsh criticism it's receiving for the decision to invite Obama (let alone to give him an honorary degree).
2. The Catholics United response: Abortion is a single issue, Catholics are bigger than that, Obama is historic and his policies support the common good (no, really, they said that), and all those Catholics who are partisan and support the GOP keep their mouths shut when people who Hate the Poor and Trample on the Oppressed are invited to speak, so...so there.
3. The Fr. Reese response: As a Jesuit, he reserves the right to make no sense whatsoever. That said, Obama's really pro-life, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. And inviting people to speak at the Al Smith dinner which by its nature invites both major party candidates to speak is exactly the same as Notre Dame's decision to invite Obama and freely give him an honorary degree, for reasons which are beyond the comprehension of those not educated by Jesuits. And academic freedom requires us to invite people who challenge our ideas to speak to us in a forum where we won't be engaging in any discussion, asking any questions, or even forbidding the ubiquitous teleprompter, even if we know that the person in question has nothing but contempt for the Catholic views on the value of human life from conception to natural death, and has called babies a "punishment" and thinks questions about human life are beyond his pay grade, which suggests that he doesn't really have any challenging new ideas--or even ideas--to offer on this subject anyway.
It probably doesn't surprise anyone that I don't find any of these responses particularly compelling. But now, in light of Daniel Gilgoff's observation, I'm wondering if the wildly varied responses from Notre Dame's defenders aren't coming from people who didn't find out that Obama had accepted Notre Dame's invitation any sooner than the critics of the decision did.
In the presence of a wrongheaded decision, it's not all that difficult to articulate why the decision was wrong. Bishop D'Arcy did it best, I think, but others have been eloquent and clear as well. It's a lot harder to spin a bad decision as if it were really a good one, or at least as if it, or the institution making it, were above criticism--and it's especially hard to do this if there was no opportunity to coordinate the spin in advance.
Which could have been done, if Obama had shared with his "Catholic support" team the news that he planned to accept Notre Dame's invitation ahead of time. That he didn't is just another indication of how much for granted Obama takes his liberal Catholic supporters, and how little they are getting from him despite how much they've been willing to set aside in order to get anything at all.