By Kathleen Gilbert

SAN ANTONIO, Texas, June 19, 2009 ( – Two bishops questioned on the U.S. prelates' response to the Notre Dame scandal have suggested that the correct attitude to pro-abortion politicans at Catholic universities is unclear, and agreed with University president Fr. John Jenkins' emphasis on the paramount need for “dialogue.”

Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Curry of Los Angeles told John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter during the USCCB's spring meeting that he suspected the bishops would bring up the unprecedented controversy that stemmed from the University of Notre Dame's invitation of President Obama to offer the commencement speech and receive an honorary degree May 17. Over 360,000 petitioning individuals and 80 active U.S. bishops opposed the event, which was boycotted by Notre Dame's own Bishop John D'Arcy.

Curry emphasized a need for dialogue in the abortion debate, likening the current situation between the Catholic Church and pro-abortion politics to the Church's struggle with the advent of religious pluralism.

“The church struggled with that for a hundred years or more, but we did come to live with it,” said Curry.

“We have to come to be able to do two things: to challenge people who differ drastically from us, but also to dialogue with them,” he continued. ”There are great issues involved, and we have to make clear distinctions between endorsing something, challenging it, and engaging it.”

Curry also said that whether the Obama invitation violated 2004 U.S. bishops' policy is part of what is “under discussion” among the bishops at the conference. The 2004 USCCB document “Catholics in Political Life,” cited by most of the bishops condemning the scandal, stated: “The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.”

Bishop Curry said he was confident that Notre Dame and the U.S. bishops “are on the same side,” and that he did not think punitive measures against universities non-compliant with USCCB policy would be “useful.”

In a separate interview, Allen asked Tucson Bishop Gerald Kicanas how clear he felt the bishops' position is on the matter of pro-abortion politicians at schools.

“For example, let’s say a Catholic university president called you today and said, ‘We want to give an honorary degree to Vice President Biden.’ Would it be clear to you how you should respond to that?” Allen questioned.

“I think a lot would depend on the circumstances of it,” Kicanas responded. ”It’s a theoretical question, so it’s hard for me to answer.”

Kicanas also gave ground to Fr. Jenkins' defense that the 2004 document may be interpreted to refer only to Catholic politicians. ”It may be that there was some lack of clarity about the statement itself. It did refer to ‘Catholic politicians’ in the title,” he said. 

Kicanas did not directly answer whether punitive measures should be considered as a next step, saying only that the disagreement should be approached “carefully, sensitively, more in a spirit of conversation.”

The bishop objected to Allen's implication that Notre Dame “deliberately defied” the bishops' guidelines by inviting Obama.

“I think that’s a pretty harsh statement,” said Kicanas. ”They may have interpreted the document differently. The first thing is to be sure of what we are indeed saying, what we’re agreeing to, and then bringing that to the institutions within one’s own diocese. It is a dialogic thing.”

Bishop Kicanas ranks among the U.S. bishops more accessible to liberal Catholics for his pronounced advocacy of “progressive” social justice issues, unto relative dismissal of the abortion issue. In 2006, Kicanas lauded Congressman Jim Kolbe, who earned a 100% rating by NARAL, as “a good and faithful advocate of assistance to lift up the poorest of the poor.” 

One other bishop who stressed the need for “dialogue,” in line with Notre Dame's own argument, was Archbishop Emeritus John Quinn of San Francisco. Just before the commencement, Quinn criticized the “often strident outcries” of the bishops who opposed Obama's invitation, and issued a letter of support to the President.


Auxiliary Bishop Curry interview

Bishop Kicanas interview

See related coverage:

San Francisco Abp. Emeritus Issues Letter of Support to Obama amid ND Scandal

Lay Catholics Go After Bishop For Support Of Pro-Abortion Politicians