THE CONGREGATION OF HOLY CROSS
Via Framura, 85
00168 Rome, Italy
March 22, 2009
President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20500
The United States of America
Dear Mr. President,
Congratulations on being awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Notre Dame!
The University of Notre Dame was founded by the Congregation of Holy Cross and in 1844 it was established as a civil moral person by a legislative act of the state of Indiana. On March 6, 1967, with the consent of the Holy Father Pope Paul VI, in the spirit of Vatican Council II with its clarion call for all Catholics to take greater responsibility for living and strengthening the life of the Church, the Congregation of Holy Cross ceded its ownership of the University of Notre Dame to a Board of Fellows. The University remains, however, under the continuous sponsorship of the Congregation of Holy Cross of which I am the Superior General.
The dramatic alienation of ownership of the University of Notre Dame from the Congregation of Holy Cross took place in light of the Second Vatican Council's recommendation that competent laity play a more significant role in the administration of religious and ecclesiastical property. Through this unprecedented gesture the Congregation of Holy Cross sought to offer competent lay Catholics broader responsibility for Catholic higher education without jeopardizing the authentic Catholic character of the institution.
President Obama, the University of Notre Dame is honored to have you, as President of the United States of America, deliver the commencement address to the graduating class of 2009. Personally, in so many ways, I admire you as a great American, a person endowed with extraordinarily well developed intellectual gifts, and, in my opinion, a man whose enormous compassion characterizes the goodness of his heart. Mr. President, you have the potential for greatness; I pray it be realized.
As you know the University of Notre Dame's decision to award you the honorary degree and to invite you to deliver the commencement address is fraught with controversy. As Superior General of the Congregation of Holy Cross I have been deluged with angry e-mails regarding Notre Dame's decision to invite you to campus for the honors you are to receive.
Because of the University's legal civil alienation from the Congregation, I have no authority over its decision making - those responsibilities are now directed by a Board of Fellows and a Board of Trustees. Nevertheless I do hold personal authority over all of the Holy Cross priests and brothers of the Congregation who serve at the University of Notre Dame including its president who is always a Holy Cross priest.
President Obama, you are superbly versed in the issues of our day. I have no doubt that your policy convictions are grounded in rigorous study and that all your important decisions are supported by your conscience. Therefore, through this open letter, I would like to take advantage of the occasion of your receiving an honorary degree from Notre Dame, to ask you to rethink, through prayerful wrestling with your own conscience, your stated positions on the vital "life issues" of our day, particularly in regard to abortion, embryonic forms of stem cell research and your position on the Freedom of Choice Act before Congress.
Perhaps such an impertinent request rings with insolence. I mean you neither rudeness nor disrespect. I ask you this directly because as a Catholic, in this critical area of life and death issues, I hold and promote contrary views to your own as to what is right and just for the common good of our nation.
In a very real sense your presence at Notre Dame offers us a kind of seminar, a stimulus of mind and heart, to quicken and incite conscience formation. None of us want to be stubborn and yet we have clear convictions. We want to be open to a variety of perspectives yet it is our principled beliefs that define us. We Catholics are always battling the vagrancies of "relativism." It is clear, however, that your positions on some of the fundamental "life issues" of our nation can neither be supported by the mission and ministry of the Congregation of Holy Cross, the University of Notre Dame nor the faithful Catholic community.
Mr. President, in thinking of your coming visit to Notre Dame, I am reminded of the way you seized the opportunity, in the heat of your campaign for president, to address the issue of racial bigotry in our American culture. Your courage in addressing a history of the racism and violent discrimination in a nation grounded in human rights and freedom for all, confronted us with the inconsistency and hypocrisy of our words and actions. In addressing the issue of racism head on with passionate convictions and sterling logic you not only benefited politically during a critical point of the campaign but you also used this precarious opportunity as a teachable moment for the nation, calling us to our best selves, to live truly who we say we are.
In a similar way your presence at Notre Dame affords all of us a teachable moment. We Catholics will not modify or compromise our essential faith convictions but we do need help in developing our skills of communication and organization to express our faith convictions in American society so as to be heard and taken seriously. How are we Catholics to participate in all levels of government without betraying our consciences or without being coerced by potential laws that would violate our consciences? This is a colossal concern for us with far reaching consequences that go to the core of who we are as a nation, as human beings and people of faith.
Father John Jenkins, C.S.C., President of Notre Dame, reminded students recently that that the University of Notre Dame aspires to help them grow in faith and moral character. He gave them points to ponder. In a list of six smidgens of wisdom, Father Jenkins first urged them to wrestle with the largest questions of life such as:"What is a truly good, worthy human life and how do I live it?" Perhaps the largest question of all is: "What, if anything, am I willing to die for?"
Will we die for our essential beliefs?
Most Catholics, who disagree with the decision of the University to offer you this award, are rooted deeply in their faith, however imperfect we may be. We often fail, we are sinners, no doubt about it. Trusting in God's love we try to pick ourselves up, seek forgiveness and try to do better. Our faith means everything to us; we have a faith we will die for.
Sadly today, many faithful Catholics now feel out of the mainstream of our nation's direction and decision-making. Sometimes it seems many legislators, judges and executives, and even yourself, Mr. President, dismiss our views too off-handedly, without giving them the serious attention and reflection they deserve. How are we Catholics to go about getting ourselves to be taken seriously by our government leaders?
President Obama, your presence at Notre Dame, a premier Catholic institution, is regarded by many good Catholics as scandalous because of your support of abortion rights, regarded by us as an intrinsic evil. In awarding you this degree, they experience Notre Dame as undermining essential, intrinsic Catholic dogma which upholds the dignity of human life. They believe that in honoring you or in giving you a platform to speak, the University of Notre Dame is selling her soul for who knows what: perhaps, at best, for the prestige and glory of having the President of the United States on campus during his first year in office or perhaps at worst, giving an endorsement to your "anti-life policies."
I do not believe this outrage is simply a demonstration of partisan politics. I sincerely want to rejoice in your presence at Notre Dame as President of the United States. But really, can I? In all sincerity, President Obama, how are we Catholics to deal with you, or any other government leader, who upholds what we believe to be the intrinsic evil of abortion and who is willing to sign the FOCA legislation? How are we to confront Catholic leaders in your own Administration by whom we feel so abandoned? Are we to use tactics of shunning you and dismissing you as we feel shunned and dismissed? This is a far from frivolous question. Shunning seems to be the growing trend among many Catholic leaders and institutions today. It seems to be the only recourse left open. It is, of course, a tactic many politicians have used on occasion, including yourself.
During the campaign for example, you went to great and painful lengths to distance yourself from your pastor over extremely controversial issues. Our Catholic concern for the right to life motivates us to go to great and painful lengths to distance ourselves from you because of your position on many of the "life issues."
There are also politicians on both sides of the aisle who say we as a nation can never meet or negotiate with our enemies until they first change their ways. Your predecessor, for example, shunned political leaders of nations who sponsored state terrorism. Your administration has taken a different tact. You have indicated your willingness to engage our nation's foes in dialogue, yet Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, states that he will continue to shun you until the United States changes behavior toward Iran. "Change only in words is not enough. Change must be real," he said.
Likewise, there is no way you could possibly invite the Iranian President Mohammad Khatami to the United States to address a joint session of the Congress. It is unthinkable. Many Catholics find a parallel situation in your being invited to speak at a Catholic institution like Notre Dame. They are scandalized beyond measure that Notre Dame would do such a thing.
Mr. President, as you know the "life issues" before us are quite matter of fact, yet exceedingly complex. Our most essential faith conviction is straight-forward. You yourself expressed it so well in your remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast this past February 5th, when you said: "No matter what we choose to believe, let us remember that there is no religion whose central tenet is hate. There is no God who condones taking the life an innocent human being. This much we know."
This much we know, Mr. President, your statement on the taking of an innocent life is our belief. It is the kind of clear, straightforward talk of your conscience convictions that we find so appealing. But sadly for us Catholics, your words do not express our meaning when you speak of "taking the life of an innocent human being."
President Obama, I found the entirety of your remarks at the prayer breakfast truly inspiring and motivating. In your words I found, in summary form, the reason of my admiration and esteem for you and the root of my patriotism. With your words, however, I also found, in summary form, the reason I could vote neither for you nor the Democratic ticket nor the Republican ticket. In fact, as a Catholic I believe myself disenfranchised from my government and disillusioned with what I perceive as a great gap between the rhetoric of our founding national ideals and the hubris of our so-called national convictions which more and more seem simply to enshrine our self-interest for prosperity over democracy. As an American Catholic, will I ever be able to vote again for a nominee of a major political party when each party, in my view, fails the consistency test in promoting the rights and dignity of all human beings from conception to natural death?
I am embarrassed to confess that I sat out the last election cycle. I am finding it more and more difficult to vote for the candidates of our major political parties. My friends tell me to vote by all means, vote for the lesser of the evils. Unfortunately today's evils seem so much larger than my conscience can bear, whether they be on abortion, the death penalty, euthanasia, immigration, the economy, housing for the poor, health care for the uninsured, the environment, war or weapons of mass destruction. I do love my country and I do want to vote. I just don't know how to vote while remaining true to my conscience formed by my faith convictions.
But to return to your simple truth: "There is no God who condones taking the life of an innocent human being."
Catholic dogma insists that life begins at conception. Innocent human life is conceived through sexual intercourse meant to be the most intimate, expression of love possible between two human beings, save giving up one's life for the other. In his first encyclical, "God Is Love," Pope Benedict XVI taught that "one meaning in love, amid a multiplicity of meanings, stands out in particular: the love between man and woman, where body and soul are inseparably joined and human beings glimpse an apparently irresistible promise of happiness. This would seem to be the very epitome of love."
It is true that sometimes, tragically, life is formed in the brutality of rape or in the shame of incest. Likewise life is often unintentionally conceived within the process of people solely seeking sexual pleasures.
But in Catholic dogma, human life is human life. Abortion is considered an unspeakable crime, the taking of an innocent human life. As you so well stated "no God condones taking the life of an innocent human being." As Catholics, that much we know. You prayed "let us remember that there is no religion whose central tenet is hate." Just as love begets love, hate begets hate.
There are some people who hate the life of a child in the womb due to the unwanted consequences of sheltering, nurturing and forming that new "intruder," that new guest, who is now forever altering the agenda of one's personal life as well as the life of our larger society.
There are some religious people who now hate Notre Dame for inviting you to speak at the 2009 graduation and receive an honorary degree. I fear their hate will beget further hate. Will their hatred ultimately destroy their souls in the guise of self-righteousness, just as powerfully as abortion destroys the physical life of a newly conceived child?
Embedded in the civil laws framing our United States cultural values, and even among some Christian believers, an embryo growing in a woman's womb is not considered to be a human life; "it" is regarded simply as new tissue, a kind of cancerous, biological growth infecting a woman's body and threatening a woman's independent way of life. Legalized abortion clearly implies that a person's choice for personal freedom supersedes the natural human obligation to protect and nurture human life. Biological destiny has its challenges for both women and men in making our choices. The Hebrew Scripture emphatically expresses the right decision in the choice between life and death: "choose life!"
Faithful Catholics believe that the fetus, the embryo, growing in the womb is a distinct human being. We believe that the new child's mother is the guardian of her baby's life within her womb. She is offering this new creation precious hospitality, just as a Christian might give a journeying pilgrim the respite of hospitality within one's own home.
This much we know, Mr. President, in our culture, dictated by the law of the land, a newly conceived embryo is not offered the dignity and rights of an independent, innocent human being. "There is no God who condones taking the life an innocent human being." As Catholics, this much we know, abortion is taking the life of an innocent human being. Nothing will ever change that.
President Obama, would you really sign into law a bill like FOCA which would force faith-based hospitals and healthcare facilities to perform abortions? Would you deny doctors and health care professionals their most precious human freedom in choosing life?
The issue of choice in American law looms large before us: in your logic it will be lawful to choose abortion but it will be a crime to choose life. In Catholic logic one cannot choose to murder in any circumstance, even in punishment for crime. One can choose life but not death. I am not so naïve as to believe that passing such ill-advised, contemptible legislation such as FOCA will "end the culture wars" as you have stated. On the contrary it will be considered by many of us as a persecution of the Catholic Church.
Tragically, we have a tradition in our United States culture which gives us permission to define the parameters of human life when it suits our self-interest. Did we not justify our tradition of slavery by denying that a black human being of African decent was fully human? To call a slave a human being would have interrupted the economic progress and well being of our country's self-interest. Many leaders of the nation believed we could not afford to do that. As I understand it, President Lincoln had a contrary view and took us to civil war for the sake of unifying our country's conscience in terms of the rights and dignity of all human life. Or was it simply a war fought over the nation's economy?
And so now today we are engaged in a great civil war over conscience formation. The defense of human life is an obligation for all humanity, not just for Catholics. Or is this war simply a war over the right to defend our self-interest without regard for promoting the responsibility we have for others?
An "unwanted" child comes in many forms: an untimely presence; a disabled or deformed creature; an embryo of the wrong sex; a child conceived out of wedlock; a child conceived through a hideous crime. We today have an unparalleled capacity through our scientific know-how, unlike the limited knowledge at the disposal of Adolf Hitler, to create a super race, free of any spot or wrinkle. The new laws of our society seem to aspire toward creating genetic purity within the human species, hoping to assure a problem-free future for the sake of human happiness, pleasure, prosperity and peace.
There is no doubt in my mind, Mr. President, that in the not too distant future we will have godlike powers to form the perfect human species. The Tower of Babel will have had nothing on us when it comes to asserting our god-like greatness.
Surely future laws will require us to remove any genetic tendency toward weakness and imperfection; we will soon have a nation (and world?) of perfect "Stepford Wives" and perhaps "Stepford Husbands" and "Stepford Children." We will soon become quite adept in the art of putting people out of their misery; particularly if they are causing us misery!
On a very personal level, Mr. President, as a young man I was scandalized by the Republican agenda after theRoe vs. Wade decision. As I recall, perhaps mistakenly but I sincerely believe accurately, that some powerful Republican governors introduced the country's most liberal abortion laws in their populous states. I seem to recall hearing one Republican Senator say in a television interview that he favored abortion because it was cheaper than welfare. I also recall hearing an influential Democrat calling abortion "black genocide." Somewhere along the line, I suppose in the defense of women's rights and in the rise of Christian fundamentalism as a political power, the agendas flip-flopped, one side to the other. How did that ever happen? But when it did, given my faith convictions and my conscience, I had no choice but to surrender my political affiliation as a Democrat and become an Independent.
In all sincerity, Mr. President, how am I to conduct myself as an American Catholic? If the "Freedom of Choice Act" were to be passed, would it mean that I flee to Canada in protest, the way so many of my peers did during the Vietnam War? Should I flee to the desert as did Christians of old to escape the fabric of a sinful society seemingly beyond conversion?
In my humble opinion, Mr. President, it doesn't do us any good to withdraw from society; and it surely doesn't do us any good to throw things at one another, be they shoes or missiles or ugly words. Does it do us any good as Catholics to honor with honorary degrees those who disagree with us over essential matters of life and death? In my opinion it doesn't do the conscience of Catholic politicians any good to state that while they are personally opposed to abortion, they will nevertheless uphold the law of the land.
When the Honorable Mario Cuomo was Governor of New York, a Catholic civil servant, for example, he said that although he was opposed to abortion he would support abortion rights as the law of the land. Yet in promoting opposition to the death penalty, and in this I fully agreed with him, he was willing to fight with all his political might to change the law of the land. Where was his consistency? Where is any Catholic's consistency in living faith as a public servant or in honoring a public servant who chooses death over life, whether it be through abortion or through punishment for crime?
President Obama, what good will it do for Catholic politicians to bring his or her faith convictions into the culture wars of legislating for the common good? Surely they will lose their next election; the secular industrial news media complex will see to that. From what platform, then, ought Catholics to speak? Can we only shun the political world and thereby risk losing our souls to a possible spiritual death through indifference or self-righteousness? It seems shunning has become our only choice. Surely we can do better than that. Our sins as a Catholic Church are well known, we cannot dare be self-righteous. But we dare not remain silent either, even in the face of our own sins. Repentance and conversion, mercy and forgiveness are the only healing remedies for all of us.
And how are Catholics to relate with Catholics who seem so indifferent to these fundamental life issues? I agree with Archbishop Charles Chaput, who complained: "Too many Catholics just don't really care. That's the truth of it. If they cared, our political environment would be different. If 65 million Catholics really cared about their faith and cared about what it teaches, neither political party could ignore what we believe about justice for the poor, or the homeless, or immigrants, or the unborn child. If 65 million American Catholics really understood their faith, we wouldn't need to waste each other's time arguing about whether the legalized killing of an unborn child is somehow 'balanced out' or excused by three other good social policies."
Mr. President, may I digress for a moment and risk trying your patience? May I share with you a great personal gripe with our American free press? The big business of our industrial news media complex seems hardly free to me. The industrial news media complex seems no more than a huge business monopoly whose owners have become the new teaching hierarchy of the culture wars. The Catholic Church's magisterium, teaching authority, cannot hold a candle to the magisterium of the powerful lords of the industrial news media complex.
When it comes to reporting news of the Catholic Church our infamous free press seems more than eager to employ yellow journalism sound bytes to make news and money while promulgating their self-centered values in the formation of our American culture. Let me give you a current example: the Pope's recent visit to Africa. On March 17th, while on the plane to Cameroon, Pope Benedict was asked about the effectiveness of condoms in the fight against AIDS and the Church's position on the use of condoms. The Pope responded with what I perceived to be a thoughtful and gracious answer. What the church teaches in regard to healing is the"humanization of sexuality" through the promotion of sexual responsibility and dignity on the one hand, and on the other hand, "a willingness to be present with those who are suffering." He spoke of the many church programs and dedicated care givers currently helping people with AIDS.
As you well know, Mr. President, the news media make the news. Their story reduced the Pope's visit to Africa as a condemnation of condoms, ignoring completely his eloquent message for justice, peace and mercy at every level of life on the African continent.
How can the media play up condoms and downplay encouraging words such as these of Pope Benedict XVI which offer so much challenge and inspiration that can enrich us all?
"Angola knows that the time has come for Africa to be the Continent of Hope! All upright human conduct is hope in action. Our actions are never indifferent before God. Nor are they indifferent for the unfolding of history. Friends, armed with integrity, magnanimity and compassion, you can transform this continent, freeing your people from the scourges of greed, violence and unrest and leading them along the path marked with the principles indispensable to every modern civic democracy: respect and promotion of human rights, transparent governance, an independent judiciary, a free press, a civil service of integrity, a properly functioning network of schools and hospitals, and - most pressing - a determination born from the conversion of hearts to excise corruption once and for all."
Mr. President, I am quite sure you will find in the Pope a kindred spirit when you meet him. Both of you have keen intellects and compassionate hearts.
Unfortunately, the current newsmakers clearly find Catholic bashing in vogue. They ridicule the Church's rich social and spiritual teaching with inane sound bytes meant to undermine the teaching authority of the Church in fostering a good and just civilization of love.
Mr. President, what advice would you give someone like me who wants to respect a wide diversity of opinion yet who seeks to live faith convictions that relate to the essential common good of our American Society?
Like so many Americans, and people of good will around the world, I find such great hope in you. I pray my hope will be realized; however, I fear disillusionment, I fear being let down, with a thud. I mentioned that I believe you have the potential for greatness. I sincerely pray for the realization of your potential because, selfishly, in the process, you will help me and many others to fulfill our potential as human beings created in the image and likeness of God.
When sharing smidgens of wisdom with Notre Dame Students, one point Father Jenkins made, which I like very much, concerned the risk of their making mistakes while striving for excellence in all they do. He said that our mistakes can often be great teachers, for they offer us great sources of insight and motivation. He quoted Chief Justice John Roberts who once said, "Failure is a more effective stimulus than success - because you don't get to do it over, but you do get the chance to do it better next time."
Mr. President, may I be so audacious as to suggest that you have made a mistake in your position supporting abortion rights as the law of the land. May I suggest, with all humility for I am far from perfect, that you give your conscience a fresh opportunity to be formed anew in a holy awe and reverence before human life in every form at every stage - from conception to natural death. For we are all the Children of God.
I believe, President Obama, as I am sure you do, that love makes the world go round. I gained the greatest appreciation for the meaning of salvation through God's love lived out in human beings in the holy words of Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. They reinforced for me the nature of Christ's death on the cross for the sake of our salvation; they taught me what it is to be Christ-like. Permit me to share them with you. You are more than likely familiar with them already. He said:
"To our most bitter opponents we say: We will match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we shall continue to love you. Throw us in jail and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and our churches and we will still love you. Threaten our children and we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities in the night hours. Beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be assured we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, not only for ourselves but for you as well. Appealing to your consciences and your heart, we shall win you over in love in the process of gaining our freedom. Our victory will be a double victory."
Mr. President, I pray that Catholics, through the grace of God's love in their passionate determination to love all people, will help win over our American society and our world culture to reverence the inherent dignity of all human life, without exception.
I don't want sound bytes to determine the kind of relationship of respect I have for you or the quality of fidelity the University of Notre Dame has with the larger Church. I want simply to be respectful of you as my brother and my President to dialogue with you and my country without betraying my fundamental faith convictions. We live in a pluralistic society, yes. Concerned and committed Catholics are an essential part of that plurality. We have something vital and indispensable to say to everyone about these "life issues." We want to be taken seriously. We insist on taking ourselves seriously, that is why there has been so much protest and turmoil in regard to your presence at Notre Dame.
I want, in words of Rev. King, to embrace what I believe to be the great truth which stands before the door of the United States today: "to stand up for that which is right and that which is just...We die when we refuse to stand up for that which is right. We die when we refuse to take a stand for that which is true. So we are going to stand up right here."
The defense of all human life is the great truth standing before the door of our lives in American society today. I pray that the nation will open that door of truth and walk through it. We need you, Mr. President: your goodness, your courage, your faith convictions about the sacredness of all human life, from conception to natural death, to lead us through that door.
Perhaps, Mr. President, at the University of Notre Dame, you can stand up and shed some light on how Catholics can be taken seriously for our faith convictions without being dismissed off-handedly and shunned; it is so offensive to be ignored, it is unacceptable. We need to rally; we need to stand up for this great truth of life.
Please, Mr. President, stand up for the truth of life, walk through that door and take us, as a nation, with you. If you do, I have no doubt whatsoever, that your greatness will be realized.
Be assured of my prayers, Mr. President, for you and your good and delightful family. What a blessing your family is to the nation. May God's grace expand the love in your hearts day in and day out. And, too, congratulations on receiving your honorary degree from the University of Notre Dame!
Rev. Hugh W. Cleary, C.S.C.