Now that the day has arrived for Barack Obama to give his speech and receive his honourary doctorate at Notre Dame, it’s time to clear the ideological blather out (like this) of the way and get to some reasonable explanation as to why such a wide swath of American Catholicism–with the tacit approval of the Vatican–is going along with this.
The Roman Catholic Church has survived for many centuries under a wide variety of regimes and states. The Church is a survivor, and that’s especially remarkable considering that it generally holds a good deal of property, which makes it a target for wealth-hungry governments. It’s also an institution that has thrived in conditions unlike the ideal ones that have heretofore existed in this country, so its perspective on politics and government on an operating basis is different than ours as Americans.
The blunt truth is that the Roman Catholic Church, at the highest levels and downward, have concluded that they are looking at a long-term dictator in Barack Obama. Whether this centres in Obama himself or whether it represents a fundamental shift in the style of mind in the U.S. (or both) the result is the same. The church’s response to this has always been to attempt to reach an accomodation with the powers that be so as to insure its own survival at the highest level possible. The way this plays out varies from place to place; one should think of places such as Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, or Poland under communism. How aggresively it pursues its agenda under adverse circumstances depends upon the nature of those circumstances. The current Pontiff and his predecessor are two human illustrations of that variety.
Although it would be interesting to speculate how John Paul II would have handled this situation, the message that’s being sent from both the Vatican and Notre Dame is that the Church has concluded that it’s playing from a weak hand in the U.S. Given the threat of having abortion (and possible nationalisation) shoved down the throat of the Catholic health system, that assessment may have some validity.
This kind of thing is one of the least attractive aspects of Roman Catholicism. It can be heartbreaking for Catholics who are strictly working on principle, but that’s just the way it is.
It’s interesting to note that the one country this kind of accomodation didn’t work in was China. There the Chinese nationalised the Catholic Church (come to think of it, England under Henry VIII did the same thing!) and the RCC is still out of the game there. The rise of China in the world can’t sit too well at the Vatican given this simple fact.