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Heartbreak, Hope, and Notre Dame: Legitimacy and Catholic Identity in the Public Square

This spring has been marked by both heartbreak and hope for many U.S. Catholics.

The heartbreak came as, in the name of Catholic faith, too many bishops joined their voices to the protest against the University of Notre Dame’s recent honoring of President Obama. I call this heartbreaking because the actions of these bishops helped make a partisan attack seem legitimate by linking it with Catholic identity. That partisan attack was characterized by an insistence that Notre Dame violated its Catholic identity in honoring President Obama, since Mr. Obama has dared to suggest that the tragedy of abortion may be more successfully ended by supporting pregnant women in hard circumstances, rather than continuing the shouting match over Roe v. Wade that marks the political status quo. By equating Catholic identity with supporting Republican strategies for ending abortion, the bishops have strengthened the message favored by the far Right when addressing non-Republican Catholics: namely, that we are not welcome in our own Church.

Examples of the episcopal outrage are by now familiar. Bishop John D’Arcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend boycotted the Notre Dame commencement ceremony. Archbishop Raymond Burke, formerly of St. Louis and now Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, called Notre Dame granting Mr. Obama an honorary degree “the source of the gravest scandal”. Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie called it a “day of shame” for Notre Dame. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago asserted that clearly Notre Dame “didn’t understand what it means to be Catholic,” while Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver suggested that in honoring President Obama, Notre Dame “prostitut[ed] our Catholic identity by appeals to phony dialogue that mask an abdication of our moral witness.”  As of May 22, Zenit.org claimed that 83 bishops had spoken up against Notre Dame honoring Mr. Obama.

For Catholics who honor President Obama as a leader embodying many important Catholic values, such condemnations in the name of Catholic identity have been infuriating and, ultimately, heartbreaking. They break our hearts with their insistence that Catholic identity is defined not primarily by a life of prayer and generosity, nor by participation in a rich cultural and intellectual tradition, and certainly not by a prophetic voice for the downtrodden and in favor of peace – but, instead, and exclusively, by support for Republican approaches to ending abortion.

In my view, the fundamental issue at stake in this is legitimacy, a concept that spans academic disciplines from political theory and philosophy to sociology, psychology, and literary theory. In its literal sense, legitimacy refers to the law; something is legitimate by virtue of being in accord with a society’s ruling code. In practice, though, the meaning extends beyond the law and explains what makes laws and leaders acceptable to the public they rule. As German political theorist Hannah Arendt argues (1958; 1970), legitimacy can be lost if authorities violate the trust of the populace, because all true power is the product of popular consent. In other words, legitimacy ultimately comes from the people.

While the concept of legitimacy can be used simply to describe the sources of stability within a society, it can also be a critique of domination within that same society. For example, German sociologist Max Weber, the modern founder of legitimation theory, argues that economic violence (i.e., laissez faire capitalism) is legitimized through the so-called Protestant work ethic, while French literary theorist Jean-Francois Lyotard ([1979] 1991) argues that the 19th grand narratives of science legitimized cultural imperialism.

In terms of their comments about Notre Dame, the bishops are clearly attempting to maintain stability and loyalty for the institutional Church. However, in the process, they give dangerous partisanship legitimacy by equating Republican political strategies with Catholic identity. In so doing, these bishops are actually undermining their own authority with Catholics, and they are delegitimizing their own prophetic voice in the public square. At the same time, they are adding to the alienation so many Catholics already feel from their Church and faith tradition. (As a study published in April 2009 by Pew shows, one out of three Catholics has left the Church.)

All of this contributes to the heartbreak afflicting U.S. Catholics this spring.

But with this heartbreak have also come genuine rays of hope, as articulate Catholic voices find their way into the public square and firmly contest such narrow partisan models of Catholic identity. A number of thoughtful op-eds have appeared – such as this piece by Patrick Whelan in the Chicago Tribune, this piece by Paul Titus in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and this piece by John Gehring on God’s Politics. In addition, countless cogent letters to the editor challenged the campaign against President Obama’s Notre Dame appearance, such as these ones in the New York Times. And, of particular import in the discussion of Catholic identity, the coverage by semi-official Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano has been, overall, quite supportive of President Obama. The paper’s editor-in-chief, Gian Maria Vian, even stated in an interview after Mr. Obama’s Notre Dame address that “Obama is not a pro-abortion president.” Also, the recent nominations of theologian Miguel Díaz as Ambassador to the Vatican and jurist Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court mean that a different model of Catholicism is gaining public prominence in the United States.

In other words, an alternative understanding of Catholic identity has been gaining some legitimacy in the public square, too.  And that is indeed a reason for hope.


7 thoughts on “Heartbreak, Hope, and Notre Dame: Legitimacy and Catholic Identity in the Public Square

  1. I have a knee jerk response to this very thoughtful post. I cannot resist this off the cuff comment.
    When has the church ever sought “legitimacy”?
    Maybe John XXIII in convening Vatican I showed a willingness to seek relevance for the Church in a changing world and there have, perhaps, been instances since then of similar forms of outreach by Church leaders who have followed. But the whole notion of “legitimacy”,I daresay, would leave the Vatican at a loss. Why the need for legitimacy?
    Legitimacy would be seen by the Vatican as a birthright. No need to seek that which you are extended by merit of simply being “the Church”. The Church is granted legitimacy merely by having an uninterrupted line of succession from Peter. They needn’t worry about legitimacy. Not really.
    As you stated in your post, legitimacy comes from the people. The Church has never been “of the people” in terms of its polity or in terms of its sharing of significant power…moral or just about any other form of real power.
    In a world whose preferred form of political expression is becoming increasingly democratic the Church will have it hands full just staying relevant. Forget about legitimacy. That’s way down the line.
    Beautiful post.

    Posted by Mike F. | May 29, 2009, 3:09 pm
    • Off the cuff or not, you make an important point, Mike. Legitimacy in its modern form has only been theorized for about a century. Thus, it really may not be something that the institutional Church has pondered much, for the reasons you describe – although I would of course argue that it should. Thanks for the insightful comment.

      Posted by Kari J. Lundgren | May 29, 2009, 6:05 pm
  2. Where were these people when Cheney and Bush and Rove were supporting torture?

    Torture! To live human beings. Where were your protests then?

    Hypocrites. Political opportunists. Phonies.

    Posted by VennData | May 29, 2009, 9:37 pm
  3. Kari,

    Thanks for a balanced, well-supported, (and might I add well-written) post. I appreciate your spirit of optimism, as well as your committment to working out your dissension with other Catholics in a non-hyprocritical fashion-in other words, without calling into question their own Catholic identity. Kudos.

    Posted by Julie Draper | June 6, 2009, 1:58 pm
  4. an insistence that Notre Dame violated its Catholic identity in honoring President Obama, since Mr. Obama has dared to suggest that the tragedy of abortion may be more successfully ended by supporting pregnant women in hard circumstances, rather than continuing the shouting match over Roe v. Wade that marks the political status quo.

    This is a ridiculous caricature of your opponents’ position. People opposed Obama not because he wants to end the “tragedy of abortion” by other means, but because he staunchly declares that abortion is “one of the most fundamental rights we possess,” and because he wants to fund abortion with public dollars (as shown by his opposition to the Hyde Amendment). Needless to say, Obama’s commitment to abortion is at odds with everything the Church stands for.

    Now it can still be a question whether Obama’s position is so wrong that it disqualifies him from receiving honorary degrees at a Catholic university. But if you want to offer any insight on that question, you have to begin by describing the question accurately, not by creating a straw man.

    Posted by JD | July 28, 2009, 12:44 pm
    • JD,

      Before you start accusing others of constructing “straw men,” I think you’d do well to consider whether you yourself are doing that. You say that it is a straw man when I suggest that Catholic protesters at Notre Dame opposed President Obama’s appearance there because he does not support criminalizing abortion, even while he has committed to reduce abortions through supporting women in hard circumstances. And yet that is precisely what occurred. This is fundamentally an issue of equating strategy and values, like I point out in my Aug 1 piece, “Buttiglione and the Abortion ‘Battle.’” Just because President Obama may not share the legal philosophy of some pro-lifers (and some members of the Catholic hierarchy) does not de facto make him “anti-life.” Such polarizing rhetoric helps no one but the fundraisers.

      Posted by Kari J. Lundgren | August 2, 2009, 6:53 pm
  5. But the problem is that there is no evidence that Obama is trying to reach the same “values” through a different strategy. There’s no evidence that he thinks of abortion as a “tragedy” at all, let alone that he wants abortion to be “ended” by any means whatsoever. To the contrary, he has expressly said that he thinks of abortion as a fundamental right, and the fact that he supports government funding for abortions even further cements the point that he wants to encourage more poor women (not fewer) to get abortions.

    All of which is to say, it’s quite a piece of rhetorical spin (ironically enough) for you to claim that Obama is just trying to “end” abortion by a different strategy, and aren’t those prolifers awful for disagreeing with his strategy.

    Posted by JD | August 6, 2009, 5:34 pm

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