Thursday, April 2, 2009

Thugs Are Thugs Are Thugs: Joan Walsh and Tim Rutten on Cardinal Newman Society

Meanwhile, the Cardinal Newman Society (here) remains the gift that keeps on giving—for bloggers like me, at least; for those of us interested in the interface between religion and politics in the U.S., who think it’s important to track the efforts of right-wing pressure groups to keep American churches in a little box owned exclusively by the right.

Two recent articles comment on the connections between the Cardinal Newman Society and the Republican party—connections I have teased out in my own postings about the Cardinal Newman Society. As Joan Walsh notes in a 1 April Salon article entitled “Right-Wing Catholics vs. Obama” (here), what we’re seeing in the attempt of Cardinal Newman Society to force Notre Dame University to rescind its invitation to President Obama next month is not just any old media scrap, but a well-organized and highly-funded right-wing attempt to punish Catholics who voted Democratic in the past election, and to force Catholic voters back into the Republican fold:

But the growing movement to stop Obama's visit isn't your ho-hum sort of Catholic League media dust-up, where Bill Donohue harumphs on television and then goes away. It's part of a well-funded lobbying effort by a group of right-wing Catholics to run liberal Catholics, and dissenting doctrine, out of the church, and to recruit the remainder of the faithful for the GOP.

This is a group of rabid right-wingers who came together to make sure Catholic universities enforce Catholic doctrine. They publish the work of ultra-right Opus Dei member Rev. C. John McCloskey, who has argued that "for a university to be truly Catholic," its faculty must be "exclusively" Catholic. Operation Rescue fanatic Randall Terry, who converted to Catholicism recently, is bringing his special kind of crazy to the movement. "The faithful Catholic world is justly enraged at the treachery of Notre Dame's leadership," Terry rants. "Notre Dame will rue the day they invited this agent of death to speak." Once a thug, always a thug.

Tim Rutten offers a similar analysis in an op-ed piece on 28 March in the Los Angeles Times (here). In Rutten’s view, what Cardinal Newman Society and its allies are trying to do with this protest is “fresh and consequential”:

There are a couple of things about this culture-warfare-as-usual controversy that are fresh and consequential enough to be of interest. The first is the protesters and their connections. Many are part of a vocal, Internet-savvy lobby that has been agitating to coerce the church's prelates into denying Communion to Catholic officeholders who deviate from a rigidly "pro-life" line. Made up of a number of smaller groups, this lobby has campaigned to keep other pro-choice officeholders (of any religion) from speaking at Catholic schools. Its supporters also have been vociferously active in the movement to use abortion as a wedge to lever Catholics into the religious right.

The effort turns on convincing Catholics -- for decades now, the principal swing voters in presidential elections -- that they're obliged to vote on the basis of moral issues important to the right wing of the church, such as abortion, stem cell research and, more recently, marriage equality.

As Rutten notes, this is an effort that has a clear partisan political objective—to convince Catholics and the culture at large that being Catholic and voting Republican are synonymous:

The Newman Society is linked to two organizations -- and the Fidelis Center -- whose programs are clearly geared toward bringing Catholics into the Republican Party.

Both Rutten and Walsh note that the Cardinal Newman Society (and the U.S. Catholic bishops who buy into this partisan political agenda) are working against certain odds. Polls indicate a majority of American Catholics satisfied with Obama’s leadership, and they also indicate that on the hot-button issues of abortion, same-sex marriage, and sexual ethics, American Catholics may even be to the left of the American mainstream. The response of Notre Dame students to the attempt to force their school to disinvite the president is also running heavily in favor or the decision to bring President Obama to the campus.

By allying themselves with groups who are using the church for partisan political purposes, some bishops are turning their backs on the majority of American Catholics and the culture in which those Catholics live. One wonders how those bishops justify such a decision on pastoral grounds.

I note one other interesting point in Walsh’s and Rutten’s articles. Both note that, in inviting the new president as its commencement speaker this year, Notre Dame is carrying on a long tradition of inviting the newly elected president to its graduation the spring following each election. Notre Dame invited Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush to speak following their elections, and there was not a whisper of protest—even though Bush opposes abolition of the death penalty, a position contrary to Catholic teaching about the sanctity of life.

I’m interested in this tidbit of news, because several bloggers at centrist Catholic websites that have recently held discussions of the Obama invitation have speculated that Mr. Obama deliberately accepted the Notre Dame invitation in order to consolidate Catholic support. I wonder why that malicious motive would be attributed to him if he is following in the footsteps of predecessors who accepted Notre Dame’s invitation because Notre Dame has a longstanding practice of inviting the new president to its commencement?

Clearly, there is, in some Catholic minds, a Catholic exceptionalism regarding President Obama. I wonder why that is the case? I wonder on what basis we are to conclude that, say, George W. Bush clearly represents Catholic values, whereas Mr. Obama does not do so?

Something about the new president seems to strike fear into the hearts of Catholics of the right and of many Catholic bishops, who appear to have thought that the Republican party had locked up the Catholic vote in perpetuity. What is that something, I wonder?