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 ( 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.