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On The Catholic Periphery

In an article in the latest Weekly Standard, First Things editor Joseph Bottum argues that conservative Catholic outrage at the University of Notre Dame's decision to invite the President of the United States to speak at the college's May 17 graduation ceremony, where he will also receive an honorary degree, has "very little to do" with politics. Rather, the controversy is "a fight about culture--the culture of American Catholicism, and how Notre Dame, still living in a 1970s Catholic world, has suddenly awakened to find itself out of date."

I realize that every movement tries to portray itself as the party of the future, but this is pretty hilarious. Pro-life absolutists, the cultural vanguard? I guess that would make the many millions of Catholics who voted for Obama the old fogies of the faith? (And does that mean the cultural right's new winning strategy is to wait for cultural liberals to die off? My, how its hopes have diminished since the giddy excesses of January 2005.)  

But Bottum is less interested in portraying liberal Catholics as old fashioned than he is in relegating them to the periphery of Catholic culture in the United States. What Notre Dame president Fr. John I. Jenkins and his liberal colleagues at the nation's other leading Catholic universities don't understand, according to Bottum, is that opposition to abortion stands "at the center of Catholic culture in this country." They thus live "in a different world from most American Catholics," and until they bring themselves into closer conformity with this authentic American-Catholic world, "they will not be Catholic--in a very real, existential sense."

What a strange--one is almost tempted to say peripheral--view of the American Catholicism this is. Not only did Catholics vote for Obama over McCain 54 percent to 45 percent. But when asked in a recent Pew poll if they think Notre Dame did the right thing in inviting the president to campus, Catholics answered affirmatively 50 percent to 28 percent. (Among those Catholics who had heard about the controversy before being contacted by the Pew pollsters, the numbers were 54 to 38 percent in favor of the invite.)

Despite what they would like to believe, it is Bottum and his theoconservative allies who stand on the margins of American Catholic life, rallying an embattled, belligerent faction of the Church--a faction so obsessed with abortion that it has become indifferent to other moral issues and incapable of making the elementary distinctions that most of their fellow Americans, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, treat as the commonsense starting-point and touchstone of moral reasoning. Like, for example, the distinctions separating those who perform abortions, those who procure abortions for themselves or others, those who encourage women to have abortions, and those (like the president and many millions of American Catholics) who merely believe abortion should not be prosecuted as a crime.

If the parents of Notre Dame's graduating seniors want to catch a glimpse of what the theocons consider "the center of Catholic culture in this country," they should listen for the buzz of prop engines and then glance skyward to behold the plane that's been circling South Bend for the past week, trailing a massive photo of bloody, aborted fetus.

UPDATE: Bottum expands on his analysis here.

UPDATE 2: For a very powerful dissent from Bottum's argument made from even further right, see Patrick Deneen here.

UPDATE 3: Ed Kilgore weighs in with a strong post of his own here.