Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Obama and the Alternative Magisterium

by Anne Hendershott, Ph.D.


In this article Anne Hendershott examines the influence of liberal Catholic bishops and college administrators regarding the election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States of America.

Larger Work

The Catholic World Report


19 – 22

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, March 2009

Nearly a year has passed since Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the United States and his speech to more than 200 leaders of Catholic colleges and universities at the Catholic University of America. Much has happened, both on campus and off.

There is the historic election of Barack Obama, a politician described by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput as "the most committed abortion rights presidential candidate of either party since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision." His election can be viewed in the context of that papal visit, for many Catholic college professors and administrators helped make his victory possible.

On Catholic campuses throughout the campaign the case was made that abortion represented just one issue among other important social issues, including poverty, healthcare, and the war on terror. It was Catholic academics — most of them teaching on those same Catholic campuses — who made the argument that Catholics could vote "in good conscience" for the pro-abortion candidate. And despite Pope Benedict's admonition that Catholic colleges must be unwavering in their commitment to Catholic teachings, it was Catholic theologians who so distorted Catholic teachings on abortion that they managed to help convince yet another generation of voters that abortion is sometimes the best response women can make to an unintended pregnancy.

Drawing from the work of Catholic theology professors like Lisa Sowle Cahill of Boston College and Cathleen Kaveny of Notre Dame, the media focused on their argument that when a candidate supports issues of social justice, such as the living wage and equality for women, Catholics can indeed support the pro-abortion candidate even when there is an acceptable prolife candidate running for office.

Throughout the presidential campaign, Kaveny and Cahill served on Obama's National Catholic Advisory Committee — advising him on how to present his pro-choice platform in ways that would be palatable to Catholics. Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, documented the fact that nine members of Obama's Catholic National Advisory Committee were professors at Catholic colleges. And analysis of campaign contributions revealed that Catholic college faculty members were generous donors to Obama's campaign.

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, professors at Georgetown University were ranked seventh among all US colleges and universities in donations to the Obama campaign.

Theological Cover

Beyond financial donations, Catholic college professors provided theological cover for the candidate. Duquesne law professor Nicholas Cafardi and Pepperdine professor Doug Kmiec, formerly the dean of the law school at Catholic University, distorted Catholic teachings in order to suggest that Obama's plan to reduce abortion by reducing poverty is a plan that Catholics can in good conscience support. Cafardi claimed that the pro-life side has "already lost the abortion battle permanently" and so should not be swayed by the prolife Republican candidate. Ignoring the fact that Obama had already promised to increase women's access to abortion through opposing the Hyde Amendment, which restricts taxpayer funding of abortions in the US, and the Mexico City policy, which bars the use of federal taxes for abortions overseas, Kmiec claimed that Obama's policies on poverty reduction would reduce abortion. Providing no evidence for his assertion that social welfare programs will reduce abortion, Kmiec dismissed the very real fact that Obama has promised to sign the Freedom of Choice Act, which abortion rights advocates themselves celebrate as a way of ending dozens of anti-abortion laws and policies at the state level, including parental-involvement and notification requirements, mandatory pre-abortion counseling and ultra-sounds, and even conscience protections for healthcare providers.

Counter to centuries of Catholic Church teachings on the sacredness of life from the moment of conception, these professors are simply continuing the commitment many Catholic college professors have been making for decades now to debunking Catholic teachings on life issues. Daniel Maguire, a longtime Marquette University theology professor, continues to call abortion a "sacred choice" and writes that "sometimes ending incipient life is the best that life offers."

Claiming support from the Catholic Church for his assertions, his pro-abortion book titled Sacred Choices maintains that the Church not only allows abortion, but celebrates it by rewarding some pro-choice individuals with sainthood. Likewise, in their book titled A Brief, Liberal, Catholic Defense of Abortion, two professors of philosophy at the Jesuit-led Seattle University, Robert Deltete and Daniel Dombrowski, argue that the fetus at the earliest stages is analogous to "plant life" and insist that the only reasons that the Church forbade abortion were based on erroneous assumptions about conception and life.

For these Seattle professors, pre-sentient beings "have no moral standing as moral patients, although they may, as in the case of a fuchsia plant, have indirect moral standing as a result of the fact that they are someone's property." They maintain that "a fetus becomes a human being in the moral sense of the term at the same approximate point when it acquires the ability to survive outside the womb."

While these professors cannot be viewed as representative of all of those teaching on Catholic campuses, it was clear throughout the 2008 presidential campaign that despite the concerns expressed by Pope Benedict XVI during his papal visit, there was no shortage of Catholic college administrators and professors willing publicly to renounce Catholic teachings in order to support the pro-abortion candidate for president.

In fact, the days following the papal visit indicated that many of those Catholic college administrators who sat in the audience and listened to the Pope speak at Catholic University missed the point of Pope Benedict's simple plea that they "search for the truth" under the light of faith and reason. Although the Holy Father made no explicit references to Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope John Paul II's 1990 apostolic constitution intended to revitalize Catholic higher education, his speech made it clear that he shares the same concerns as his predecessor.

An Academic Culture of Self-Congratulation

But the subtleties of the speech seemed to have been lost on many of those in attendance. Indeed, misinterpreting the speech's gracious opening passage that drew from Romans 10:15-17 ("How beautiful are the footsteps of those who bring the good news") as validation of a job well done, the self-congratulatory headline from The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that "Pope Benedict Thanks Educators and Addresses Academic Freedom in Talk at Catholic University."

Claiming that Pope Benedict XVI "expressed profound gratitude for the educators' selfless contributions," the presidents spent the next few weeks congratulating themselves and promising to bring the good news back to their home campuses, where many of them posted the papal address on their websites as proof of their excellence. Daniel Carey, president of Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin told a Chronicle reporter that he was grateful for the speech because "I can go back to our campus with an encouraging word . . . the papal address and the papal affirmation of gratitude for their work was a boost for Catholic educators."

Mary Lyons, president of the University of San Diego, declared that the Pope's speech was "affirming and generous," and pronounced the controversies that had surrounded Ex Corde in the past "so 90s." Father Thomas J. Reese, a fellow of the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, pointed to Pope Benedict's reaffirmation of academic freedom as particularly important.

In the midst of the accolades they awarded to themselves, none of the Catholic college leaders who were interviewed following the papal address mentioned the fact that when Pope Benedict "affirmed" academic freedom, he also added quickly that any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and teaching of the Church would betray the university's identity and mission.

We know now that it did not take long for the Catholic college presidents to betray that mission. The same semester of the papal visit, the University of San Diego honored Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, by inviting him to present the inaugural lecture at its annual Distinguished Speakers Series. Introduced as a strong advocate for empowering the poor and oppressed throughout the world, the reality remains that Roth defines social justice as increasing access to abortion for women throughout the world.

Roth has published several articles decrying women's lack of reproductive rights in places like Mexico and Argentina. Most recently, he allied with Catholics for a Free Choice to lobby for abortion in Nicaragua, a Catholic country, by issuing a report claiming that Nicaragua's complete ban on abortion was in itself a human rights abuse. As executive director, Roth has sided against the Catholic Church by acting as a signatory to an amicus brief to the Supreme Judicial Court in Massachusetts, urging the court to affirm the legality of same-sex marriage. Many of Roth's published positions are directly opposed to Catholic teachings, yet University of San Diego President Mary Lyons gave Roth the honor of speaking on a Catholic campus without a response from a university representative willing to support Catholic teaching on abortion.

Obama: "A Kindred Spirit"

In the months that followed the visit by Pope Benedict XVI, many Catholic college professors — and some Catholic college presidents — became involved in promoting the candidacy of Barack Obama. One Catholic college president provided an explicit endorsement for the candidate who Princeton Professor Robert George has called the "most extreme pro-abortion candidate ever to seek the office of the presidency of the United States." Pamela Trotman Reid, president of St. Joseph's College in West Hartford, Connecticut, told a reporter for the Hartford Courant that Obama was a "kindred spirit." As an African-American woman, Reid said that she would expect much from an Obama presidency and revealed her concerns about continuing women's access to abortion by saying that "the next president is likely going to make appointments to the Supreme Court. That could affect the right of women to make choices about their own health. These are issues of incredible importance."

The Cardinal Newman Society reported that Xavier University in Cincinnati, Mount Mercy College and St. Ambrose University in Iowa, St. Louis University in Missouri, and Villanova University in Pennsylvania hosted political rallies and stump speeches for Obama on their campuses. At St. Peter's College in New Jersey, nearly 3,000 people rallying for Obama were entertained by a children's choir from a nearby Catholic grade school.

Until recently, most Catholic bishops would have remained silent on all of this, acquiescing to faculty demands for academic freedom, despite the fact that Ex Corde Ecclesiae invokes a canon law (canon 812) requiring that all theology professors on Catholic campuses receive a mandatum from their bishops — an acknowledgement by the bishop that the Catholic professor is a teacher within the full communion of the Catholic Church. The mandatum also recognizes the professor's commitment and responsibility to teach authentic Catholic doctrine and requires that the professor refrain from putting forth as Catholic teaching anything contrary to the Church's Magisterium. The distortion of the truth in the teachings of the Church by academic theologians and Catholic college leaders is exactly what Ex Corde was designed to stop.

If the papal decree were enforced the way the Pope had intended it to be enforced, Maguire would have been removed from his teaching position. Yet one of the reasons that theologians have confidently challenged the teaching authority of the Catholic Church is because many theologians believe, as St. John's University professor Nicholas Healy has described in his writings, that theologians comprise "an Alternative Magisterium." Besides, there has been little reason for any Catholic college faculty member to worry, as the mandatum was ignored by most Catholic college presidents who refused to implement it, and the majority of Catholic bishops who seemed reluctant to enforce it.

When Will Ex Corde Be Enforced?

To understand why the main tenets of Ex Corde were disregarded, it is helpful to look at just a few of the bishops who have openly defied the entire papal document — beginning with Professor Maguire's own archbishop, the recently retired Rembert Weakland. Defying the papal requirement that he oversee the teachings of Catholic theologians, Weakland publicly refused to implement the provisions of the document. Claiming that Ex Corde would "create a tremendous pastoral disaster for the Church," Weakland complained that because of Ex Corde, the "tension between the hierarchy and theologians is the highest I have seen it in my 36 years as a superior in the Catholic Church."

Of course, this was not the first time Weakland had defied Catholic teachings. Just a few weeks after Professor Maguire published an "Open Letter to the Archbishop" stating that he would seek neither the mandatum nor ecclesial blessing, Weakland himself made national headlines when he admitted that he had become involved in a same-sex relationship with a young man several years earlier. It was also revealed that Weakland had paid the man a sum of $450,000 — much of it from Church funds — to keep their sexual affair quiet.

Weakland was just one of several bishops, like the now-retired Archbishop of San Francisco John R. Quinn, who have spent the past few decades lobbying for a more distinctively "American" Church, as independent as possible from Rome. Quinn, whose book calls for a reform of the papacy with a decrease in papal authority, decentralization, more control granted to bishops, and parishioner involvement in the selection of bishops, has supported more discussion on the ordination of women and a reconsideration of the morality of homosexual behavior and reproductive rights. Like Weakland, Quinn publicly called for a rejection of Ex Corde Ecclesiae. For many of those bishops in the Weakland-Quinn camp, the ideal American Church would be a "Vatican II Church" with liberalized policies on birth control, abortion, homosexual behavior, married priests, women's ordination — and no ties to Rome.

Some Bishops Respond

But times have changed somewhat. Weakland, Quinn, and several other likeminded bishops have retired, and there is a whole new group of faithful bishops who have replaced them. Many of these new bishops are looking more closely at what is happening on Catholic campuses — and some of them are beginning to respond. Most Rev. Raymond Burke, then the presiding archbishop of St. Louis, was one of the first to publicly speak out about high-profile pro-choice Catholic legislators and the problems on Catholic campuses. In an interview published in The Wanderer he said, "I personally am deeply grieved that the apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae in my judgment has not been applied as it needs to be in this country . . . The Holy Father has given us that teaching in the discipline to serve the Catholic universities by calling them to their Catholic identity, and that's what we have to do."

Bishop Lawrence Brandt did exactly that when he learned that Professor Kmiec was invited to speak at Seton Hill University. Criticizing the university for giving a platform to Kmiec, Bishop Brandt wrote that "there is no 'other' Catholic position except the one that appears in authentic Church documents. His misrepresentations of Catholic doctrine do a grave disservice to the Catholic community and far beyond." Unfortunately, Bishop Brandt was unable to halt the Kmiec speech because he "was unable to reach the president of Seton Hill, Dr. JoAnne Boyle." This is the saddest statement of all, because it shows clearly how little authority the bishops seem to have on Catholic college campuses.

Indeed, when Most Rev. John M. D'Arcy, archbishop of Indiana's Fort Wayne-South Bend diocese and Notre Dame's presiding bishop, issued a statement denouncing the annual Notre Dame Queer Film Festival as "an abuse of academic freedom," Notre Dame spokesman Matthew Storin responded that although the university "has great affection and respect for Bishop D'Arcy," the faculty and administrators "disagree with his interpretation of academic freedom." The dismissive response to Bishop D'Arcy reduced the role of the bishop to that of one among several responses to a controversial Notre Dame decision. Ignoring the dignity of the office of the bishop, the theological underpinnings of his critique, and his fiduciary responsibility under Ex Corde Ecclesiae as bishop of the diocese, the university rejected the bishop's concerns.

Not to be deterred, Bishop D'Arcy wrote an editorial for the South Bend Tribune in which he accused Notre Dame of presenting violations of chastity as virtues, saying, "The university has violated the rights of the Church, of students, and of parents . . . What about the rights of the Church to have its teachings properly presented?"

Although Bishop D'Arcy's concerns were ignored yet again as Notre Dame continued to hold its "Coming Out Week," its Queer Film Festival, and a campus production of The Vagina Monologues, there are signs that his courageous responses to problems on campus are beginning to have an impact. After several decades of scandal over speakers like San Diego's Kenneth Ross and anti-Catholic plays or productions like The Vagina Monologues on Catholic campuses, a growing number of bishops are beginning to enforce their own document touching on Catholic colleges, "Catholics in Political Life."

This document mandates that "Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental teachings and moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors, or platforms which would suggest support for their action."

A growing number of bishops are beginning to respond to the anti-Catholic culture that has been allowed to flourish on their campuses — and beyond. Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver confronted the Catholic faculty supporters of Obama by saying that "people who claim that the abortion struggle is 'lost' as a matter of law, or that supporting an outspoken defender of legal abortion is somehow 'prolife,' are not just wrong; they are betraying the witness of every person who continues the work of defending the unborn child." Chaput confronted Professor Kmiec directly by saying that he has "done a disservice to the Church, confused the natural priorities of Catholic social teaching, undermined the progress pro-lifers have made, and provided an excuse for some Catholics to abandon the abortion issue instead of fighting within their parties and the ballot box to protect the unborn."

It is time now for the rest of the bishops to show this kind of courage. The bishops were elevated because the Holy Father thought they were the right men to lead his flock. He believed that they were courageous enough to make the kind of demands on their followers that needed to be made.

While they seem to have lost much of their authority on many Catholic campuses, we must acknowledge that the bishops themselves created the climate for this defiance. Just as a number of bishops, like Weakland, Quinn, Flynn, Skylstad, Gumbleton, and others, disregarded the authority of the apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Catholic college faculty and administrators have rejected the authority of the bishops on their campuses. Pope John Paul II predicted this disobedience in 1987 when he reminded the American bishops that "when they fail to uphold the legitimate decisions of the Holy See, they undermine their own authority."

It is only when the bishops and the Catholic college presidents are willing to embrace the richness of their sacred heritage and the authority vested in that heritage that they will once again allow themselves to be guided by Cardinal Newman's founding vision for Catholic colleges and universities. Newman believed that the university must be "the seat of wisdom, the light of the world, and the minister of the faith." Until these leaders become again a "light of the world," the Catholic university in America will not survive.

Anne Hendershott is professor of urban studies and chair of the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics Program at The King's College in New York City. She is the author of the recently released Status Envy: The Politics of Catholic Higher Education (Transaction, 2009).

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