By Kathleen Gilbert

ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico, September 1, 2009 ( – Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, NM, told the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) last month that he disagreed with what he called the “hysterical” reaction of U.S. bishops condemning the Notre Dame scandal, as well as bishops who refuse communion to pro-abortion politicians, which he says makes the Catholic Church too “isolated from society.”

“I don't feel so badly about Obama going [to Notre Dame] because he's our president,” the New Mexico bishop said he told his fellow bishops in June.  

“We got more done this year with the state legislature by connecting with people and by saying our piece in a hopefully reasonable, and not an emotional and hysterical, way,” he said.  “Hysterical activity doesn't bear fruit, and there's been some hysteria in these areas.”

In contrast, said Sheehan, he would rather seek “to teach, and not to use sanctions.”

Archbishop Sheehan pointed out the success he and other Catholic activists had in convincing pro-abortion New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson to reverse his support for the death penalty: “We talked to him, and we got him on board and got the support in the legislature.

“But you know, he's pro-abortion. So? 

“It doesn't mean we sit and wait, that we sit on the sides and not talk to him,” said the archbishop.  “We've done so much more by consultation and by building bridges in those areas.”

Sheehan said he thought the enemies of the church were “delighted” that the U.S. bishops made “a big scene” about Obama's appearance at Notre Dame.

“And I said that I think we don't want to isolate ourselves from the rest of America by our strong views on abortion and the other things,” said Sheehan.  “We need to be building bridges, not burning them.”

When asked if there were any other bishops who agreed with him, Sheehan replied, “Of course, the majority.”

“The bishops don't want to have a battle in public with each other, but I think the majority of bishops in the country didn't join in with that, would not be in agreement with that approach,” said Sheehan, asked why none of the disagreeing bishops had spoken up.  The NCR report noted that the newspaper had found some bishops who, speaking anonymously at the U.S. bishops' San Antonio meeting in June, said they disagreed with the tenor of their brother bishops' criticism.

In the weeks leading up to Notre Dame's May 17 commencement, over 360,000 petitioners and 80 active U.S. bishops, including Notre Dame's own Bishop John D'Arcy, condemned the school's decision to honor President Obama with the commencement address and an honorary law degree.  Former U.S. prelate Archbishop Raymond Burke, head of the Vatican's highest court, also slammed the honor for the deeply pro-abortion president as “a source of the gravest scandal.”

A May Rasmussen Reports telephone survey found 60% of U.S. Catholics agreeing that Notre Dame should obey guidelines issued by the U.S. bishops and refrain from awarding an honorary degree to the president, as opposed to 25% who disagreed.  Among all Americans, 52% opposed the honor, while 25% said they support it.  

Discussing the outrage from the pro-life Catholic community, Sheehan continued: “It's well intentioned, but we don't lose our dignity by being strong in the belief that we have but also talking to others that don't have our belief. We don't lose our dignity by that.

“We'd be like the Amish, you know, kind of isolated from society, if we kept pulling back because of a single issue.”

Sheehan then compared the Notre Dame situation to Pope Benedict XVI's having made French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who is pro-abortion and pro-homosexuality, an honorary canon of the Basilica of St. John Lateran. 

Several critics of the Notre Dame backlash have pointed to Rome's traditional honor to French heads of state as a foil for the negative reaction to the Obama honor.  However, the honor, dating from 1604 with King Henri IV, is regarded as a symbolic gesture supporting the French people's special role as “eldest daughter” of the Catholic Church, rather than a statement on the leader's personal worthiness.

Sheehan also pointed out the positive attitude towards Obama held by the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano.

“It doesn't seem that [the Vatican] had quite as big a concern about this matter of Obama and Notre Dame as some of us,” said Sheehan. “The Vatican is a little more diplomatically sensitive. But you've got to have the big picture.”

The only U.S. prelate to argue in favor of Obama in the weeks before the scandal was Archbishop Emeritus John Quinn of San Francisco, who criticized the “often strident outcries” of opposing bishops. Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Curry of Los Angeles and Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson also went on record with the National Catholic Reporter in June as critics of the backlash.