What exactly is at stake when Obama gives his controversial commencement address at Notre Dame?

To the dismay of many conservatives, the Vatican's own newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, has offered what one anti-abortion Catholic blog called "a surprisingly positive assessment of the new president's approach to life issues"--so positive, in fact, that a spokesman for the National Right to Life Committee was moved to criticize Pope Benedict XVI's daily.

The April 29 essay by Giuseppe Fiorentino, L'Osservatore's frequent foreign affairs contributor, painted Obama as a moderate on many fronts. "Some have accused him of practicing excessive statism," Fiorentino wrote, "if not even of making the country drift toward socialism." But "a calmer analysis," he said, suggests that Obama "has moved with caution." (I rely here on a translation of the article posted Wednesday on the Vatican's official Web site.)    

On abortion and the other life issues, the article concluded that Obama "does not seem to have established the radical changes that he had aired."


Then came a carefully worded sentence declaring that "these measures do not eliminate the reasons for criticism in the face of unacceptable forms of bioengineering that work against the embryo's human identity, but the new regulations are less permissive than expected."    

This restrained view contrasts with charges that Obama is the "most radical pro-abortion president in history," words used earlier this year on the Christian Coalition's Web site. During the campaign, Robert P. George, a Princeton professor who is a leading Catholic conservative intellectual, called Obama "the most extreme pro-abortion candidate ever to seek the office of president of the United States."


Rank-and-file Catholics do not share in the conservatives' gloominess. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that two-thirds of Catholics approved of Obama's performance in office. Pew also reported that 50 percent of Catholics thought Notre Dame was right to invite Obama, while only 28 percent said the invitation was wrong. Even among Catholics who attend Mass at least once a week, opinion was divided evenly, with 39 percent supporting and 39 percent opposing the invitation.

The current issue of America magazine, published by the Jesuits, includes a sharply worded editorial criticizing the "divisive effects of the new American sectarians" which "have not escaped the notice of the Vatican."


And so when Obama rises to speak at Notre Dame on May 17, the stakes will be highest for moderate and liberal Catholics who insist the president is seeking common ground on the moment's most contentious ethical issues. It is likely to be his most consequential intervention in the debate over religion's role in American politics. In accepting the invitation, Obama has assumed a large responsibility that he should not try to escape.

E.J. Dionne, Jr. is the author of the recently published Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. He is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.

By E.J. Dionne, Jr.