By Peter J. Smith

ROME, October 6, 2009 ( – Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver has given Vatican prelates a gentle dose of “humble realism” about President Barack Obama and the Notre Dame scandal – in order to help them appreciate better the American bishops' grave pastoral concerns over a President whose lofty words diverge sharply from his actions on abortion and other issues.

In a July essay “Politics, Morality, and Original Sin,” published in the international Catholic journal 30 Days, Cardinal Georges Cottier, a Swiss theologian and former member of John Paul II's papal household, appeared to downplay the pastoral concerns of the American Bishops over President Barack Obama giving the commencement address to the University of Notre Dame's Class of 2009 and receiving an award.

Cottier instead suggested that Obama's words in his Notre Dame address offered “positive indications” of a desire to find “common ground” on the issue of abortion, and that “his words move in the direction of reducing the evil” by seeking to make “the number of abortions as small as possible.”

However, Chaput's delicate rebuttal, “Politics, Morality, and a President: an American View” published Tuesday in the Italian daily, Il Foglio, and made available through the Catholic News Agency, responds to Cottier and makes the case that President Obama's own actions tell the truth far better than his words before an audience.

While praising Cottier for “his generous spirit,” Chaput indicated that Cottier may have been overgenerous, since the US President's stance on abortion and other “vital bioethical issues” compromises the teachings and demands of Catholic social justice to their core.

“Regrettably and unintentionally, Cardinal Cottier's articulate essay undervalues the gravity of what happened at Notre Dame,” writes Chaput. “It also overvalues the consonance of President Obama's thinking with Catholic teaching.”

“There is no 'social justice' if the youngest and weakest among us can be legally killed.  Good programs for the poor are vital, but they can never excuse this fundamental violation of human rights,” said Chaput, addressing those in “religious circles” who see Obama as sympathetic to Catholic social teaching.

“The real source of Catholic frustration with President Obama's appearance at Notre Dame was his overt, negative public voting and speaking record on abortion and other problematic issues,” said Chaput.

Chaput said that the Notre Dame scandal erupted largely due to the fact that the university went out of its way to honor the President, violating guidelines put forth by the bishops in the 2004 document “Catholics in Political Life.” Those guidelines urged Catholic institutions like Notre Dame “to refrain from honoring public officials who disagreed with Church teaching on grave matters.” Instead of abiding by the guidelines, Notre Dame threw the counsel of the American bishops to the wind, made the President the “centerpiece of its graduation events” and then bestowed on him an honorary doctorate of laws, “despite his deeply troubling views on abortion law and related social issues.”

Chaput explained that that such public honor from Notre Dame exacerbated the conflict into a full-fledged, enduring scandal, far beyond anything that might have occurred had the President merely been invited to give “a lecture or public address.”

The firestorm that ensued, Chaput stressed, “was not finally about partisan politics.”

“It was about serious issues of Catholic belief, identity and witness – triggered by Mr. Obama's views – which Cardinal Cottier, writing from outside the American context, may have misunderstood.”

Chaput made clear that Vatican officials and Church clerics outside the US might want to respect first the pastoral concerns of the American bishops and local ordinaries, before coming to conclusions at odds with the gravity of the actual circumstances.

“When Notre Dame's local bishop vigorously disagrees with the appearance of any speaker, and some 80 other bishops and 300,000 laypeople around the country publicly support the local bishop, then reasonable people must infer that a real problem exists with the speaker – or at least with his appearance at the disputed event,” concluded Chaput.

“Reasonable people might further choose to defer to the judgment of those Catholic pastors closest to the controversy.”

Chaput's defense has prompted expressions of gratitude from some of those American Catholics, already distressed that much of the commentary on the Notre Dame scandal issuing from Vatican circles – including L'Osservatore Romano – has tended in effect (if not in intention) to undermine the stance taken by the American bishops and laity, by mitigating those concerns and giving the impression that the American response was an overreaction.

“We are grateful to Archbishop Chaput for explaining to the world why faithful American Catholics were so outraged at Notre Dame for honoring President Barack Obama last May,” said Patrick J. Reilly, President of The Cardinal Newman Society. “The more than 367,000 faithful Catholics who signed The Cardinal Newman Society petition opposing that honor held diverse political views, but they joined together as witnesses to 'serious issues of Catholic belief, identity and witness,' as Archbishop Chaput explains.”

Read Archbishop Chaput's full essay “Politics, Morality, and a President: an American View.”

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