Catholics astir over Obama's speech at Notre Dame
Opposition to his appearance at Sunday's commencement puts new attention on Catholic sensibilities – and on the president's stance on abortion and stem-cell research.
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“Maybe the church leadership is trying to say, how do we navigate this [era of hot-button issues]? It’s much more dicey now than it was 30, 40 years ago” when John Kennedy became the first Catholic president of the United States, he says.Skip to next paragraph
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Slippage among Catholic voters
There are signs that some Catholics, 54 percent of whom voted for Obama in November, are rethinking their views of the president. For instance, the share of Catholics who disapprove of the president’s performance is rising. Only 20 percent disapproved in February; lately that share has jumped to 45 percent, according to a poll released two weeks ago by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life.
That means a majority of Catholics still approve of Obama’s performance, but support among observant Catholics – those who attend services at least once a week – is fading. Sixty-three percent of that subset is disapproving, compared with 43 percent of Catholics who go to church less often.
The White House, on Tuesday, acknowledged the controversy over the Notre Dame commencement speech, but sought to play down the extent of the opposition.
“It appears as if the vast majority of students and the majority of Catholics are supportive of the invitation the president accepted,” said Robert Gibbs, White House press secretary. “I think there is one group organizing a boycott, and as best I can understand it, there are 23 groups that have formed in support of the president's invitation.”
In a prepared statement, Notre Dame president John Jenkins said the university found Obama "an inspiring leader" who was being honored especially because he is "our first African-American president." "Racial prejudice has been a deep wound in America, and Mr. Obama has been a healer," the Rev. Mr. Jenkins said. "Of course, this does not mean we support all of his positions."
Abortion as the 'line in the sand' issue
Though Catholics in the US are split over their acceptance of abortion, the Catholic Church is definitive in its opposition. That position has always been “in the architecture of Catholic teaching,” but only in the past quarter-century has the church’s public identity been so closely linked to its abortion stance, says Richard Rosengarten, dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School. The war in Iraq and capital punishment also created opportunities for church leaders to raise their voices, but they chose abortion as the “line in the sand” issue, he says.