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Obama and Notre Dame

It’s the hot topic on the Catholic blogs right now.  The “conservative” Catholics are railing against the travesty of it all, the “progressive” Catholics are cheering about dialog and engagement.  And to the surprise and chagrin of both, most Catholics have no idea or at best only a vague idea anything interesting even happened.  I’m not about to go into the gory details of what happened as it’s pretty late and that information is available in so many different places it’s wrapped back around to being funny again.

I just wanted to take a few minutes to ruminate on the speech President Obama gave at the Commencement ceremony at Notre Dame.  It was, as should by now be expected, a speech which could be given easily and fluidly, one which touched on the controversy but never engaged it.  Wistful remembrances of days past and fond memories of earnest beginnings punctuated by the jagged edge of thinly veiled political references, it could have been given almost anywhere.  It was, to borrow a phrase, memorable but forgotten the moment you walk out the door.

It was precisely this uninterestingness (and yes, the spell-checker flagged the new word I just created) that interested me.  It is, to me, the key to unlocking the core construct of this speech and, in the end, explains what President Obama was hoping to gain here.  (For the uninitiated among us, at the political level of the Presidency nothing is done without aiming for political gain; that’s not cynicism, it’s understanding that there are too many people paid too much money to allow opportunities like this one to go to waste.)

If we want to zero in on the abortion section of the speech (which, naturally, we do, because we’re single-issue voters you know) a very simple dynamic can be found.  There is an invitation to speak with “open hearts” and “open minds” and “fair-minded words”.  This sounds utterly unpretentious and thoroughly agreeable to anyone not looking to start a fist fight, verbal or otherwise.  Also embedded in this section is the admission that “the views of the two camps are irreconcilable”.  Already you can perceive a disconnect.  He is, in effect if not in direct statement, saying that debate and discussion are fine and laudable – as long as nobody expects anyone else to change his or her mind.  “Please, argue all you like, but do use good table manners.”

A debate where one side winning is not allowed is not a debate at all, it is two groups talking at each other and neither listening.  And that is precisely what the President is calling for here.  But what is to be gained by both groups talking past each other?  The answer as I can perceive it is twofold.

First, by appearing to desire discussion and debate about the issue the President can be perceived as being above the fray, undirtied by the mud being flung by both sides.  He can lightly chide either group and be praised for leading the discussion without actually taking part in it.  That’s the political version of having your cake and eating it too.

Second, and rather worse, is this:  the longer the status quo remains the more “settled” the question can be made to appear.  Instead of being the white-hot issue it currently is, an ongoing “civilized” discussion slowly robs the issue of oxygen and moves it off of the radar screens of people already overloaded with other concerns.  Further to the point, when you control the levers of power, as the President does and particularly so with both the House and Senate comfortably in his corner, maintaining the status quo generates the same effect as winning the debate because you controls all the movable pieces.  You can make small, incremental changes over time and as long as the debate rolls on nobody will notice.  It is the same effect as the frog in the pot of water – heat it too fast and the frog jumps out, but heat it up slowly without otherwise scaring the frog and it’ll boil without even knowing it.  This is the tactic which enabled dissenting theologians to run amok in the Church for decades –  call for dialog and slow contemplation of the issues at hand all the while turning the dial further and further.

All this is not to say that I am against civil debate nor even that I’m against acknowledging that there are those whose minds will never change on the topic of abortion.  To acknowledge someone will never change their mind is one thing.  To say they are right because of that is entirely another.  When Pope Benedict (then Cardinal Ratzinger) warned of a “dictatorship of relativism” it was precisely this type of issue he was confronting.  Let me make a point and see how much trouble I get in:  diversity of opinion is not a laudable goal, only a recognition of an unfortunate fact.

How can I call it unfortunate?  Jesus tells us “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life.”  Notice he used the singular form of each of those words – “the Truth“.  What is truth in this world?  That which is most closely conformed to God.  Jesus did not say “I am the Way and the Truths and the Life”, did not suggest pluralism as a goal in and of itself.  There is but one Truth, one goal, one End and all ought rightly to be conformed to that end.  To ask for debate without conclusion is to suggest the End no longer matters, that the debate is more important than the conclusion.  That, indeed, man’s ways are more important than God’s Way.  Let us, indeed, have debate.  But let it be spirited, hard and honest, and let us wrench from it whatever truths each side brings, that from those truths we might be able to better find our way to the Truth.

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • GNW_Paul May 19, 2009, 12:36 am

    I think you hit it dead center. That’s been Obama method all along. Always sound reasonable and conciliatory, while never giving an inch. Then, do what you can without drawing the attention of the MSM to advance your agenda, and let the status quo set into place.


  • Mike May 19, 2009, 8:16 am

    I posted a similar (but not as eloquent) analysis on my blog. The president’s MO is define his point of view as the “right” way, and invite people to be “civilized” by not “attacking” him. Any dissension is either civilized (“thanks for sharing, bye!”) or is labeled as being irrational hatred.

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