.- Continuing his criticism of President Barack Obama’s appearance at Notre Dame, Catholic commentator George Weigel charged that Obama has inserted himself into intra-Catholic disputes by trying to define who a “real Catholic” is. He warned the president risks assuming the headship of the dissident wing of U.S. Catholicism, pitting Catholic intellectuals and institutions against their bishops.
Weigel, writing in a Monday essay for National Review Online, said it was “surprising” and “disturbing” that President Obama decided to “insert himself” into “the ongoing Catholic debate over the boundaries of Catholic identity and the applicability of settled Catholic convention in the public square.” He said President Obama tried to settle “the decades-long intra-Catholic culture war” in favor of one faction: “the faction that had supported his candidacy and that had spent the first months of his administration defending his policies.”
In an exclusive comment to CNA, Weigel compared the effort to the historical phenomenon of “Gallicanism,” the French bishops’ past efforts to establish a church generally independent of papal authority.
“This is a very serious business, with the president of the United States putting himself in charge of the Gallican wing of the Catholic Church in the United States -- the difference being that this new Gallicanism isn't local bishops vs. Rome but intellectuals and their institutions and magazines vs. local bishops and Rome,” Weigel told CNA.
Weigel said that the “politically savvy” White House and its allies among Catholic progressive intellectuals may have intended to secure Obama’s political advantage among Catholic voters with his appearance at Notre Dame.
To secure his political position, Weigel charged, “the president of the United States decided that he would define what it means to be a real Catholic in 21st-century America — not the bishop of Fort Wayne–South Bend, who in sorrow declined to attend Notre Dame’s commencement.”
The Catholic commentator also argued that the president indirectly presented himself as a more significant authority than the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who had “explicitly and unambiguously” instructed Catholic institutions not to honor pro-abortion rights politicians.
President Obama’s commencement speech at Notre Dame, Weigel argued in National Review Online, tried to suggest “who the real Catholics in America are” and put forward the late Archbishop of Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin as the model for being “congenial and gentle” and for “always trying to bring people together.”
While praising Cardinal Bernardin’s “gallant response” to a fatal cancer diagnosis, Weigel said Cardinal Bernardin’s “seamless garment” approach to public policy ended up helping Catholic politicians and laymen dodge moral objections to their support for a permissive abortion regime.
According to Weigel, the U.S. bishops abandoned the “seamless garment” metaphor in 1998 to better emphasize the foundational nature of the life issues.
He also suggested that President Obama’s praise for Cardinal Bernardin was an implicit criticism of contemporary bishops who are vocally pro-life, like present Archbishop of Chicago Cardinal Francis George.
Cardinal George, who is also president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was described by Weigel as “one of the most articulate critics of Notre Dame’s decision to honor a president who manifestly does not share what Notre Dame claims is its institutional commitment to the Church’s defense of life.”
In his email to CNA, Weigel repeated the question he previously asked in his Catholic press column: “What Church does Notre Dame belong to?”