May 18, 2009
Sunday's speech and the reaction of the Notre Dame community, and Catholics and others worldwide, will be the subject of much comment in the coming days. Some quick thoughts and first impressions:
Without doubt, Obama was eloquent, charming, and seemingly at ease. He had the advantage (a faculty and administration behind him, and the media framing it as the man of reason versus the rabble in the street, with, obligingly, Randall Terry performing that role as if on cue), and he seemed once again to know it. The students, who prepare for this day with years of labor and the love (and labor and cash) of their families behind them, were respectful and, as students tend to be around our rock-star President, wowed by his skill with words, his symbolic meaning in transcending our historic racial divide, and his graceful humor.
As for his speech, it was un-Barackesque in one sense - he came down from Olympus, where pay grades are seldom referred to at all, and made it plain that on the issue of human life, he does in fact disagree with those who stand for its sanctity. But he was Barackesque in striving to minimize those differences, in implying that there is "demonization" of opponents afoot (not from him, of course, just unnamed others), and suggesting that, to borrow an irritating catchphrase from a recent era in U.S. Catholic politics, he is all about "dialogue" with those who disagree with him.
There is the rub. Obama is a man of many mellifluous words, but he is also a man of many unambiguous actions, and every action he has taken to date has been a forthright dismantling of the culture of life and the wall of separation that has existed between taxpayers and abortion. A complete list would include all of his key personnel in White House domestic policy, HHS, State and the Justice Department. His policy enactments include rescinding the Mexico City policy that kept the international abortion industry out of the federal Treasury, rescinding the Bush conscience regulations designed to protect medical and health research personnel from having to participate in or facilitate abortion, eliminating all but a smidgeon of abstinence funding for the pregnancy centers that deal directly with women in need, lifting the ban on the use of District of Columbia funds to pay for abortion in his proposed budget, providing federal funding for experiments that rely on killing embryonic humans in fertility clients, and sending Planned Parenthood an additional $10 million federal love note, matching what they spent to elect him last year.
The President's efforts to spur "dialogue" involve a low-level White House meeting where groups -- including, for the record, FRC -- are asked to come in and help craft a plan to "reduce the need for abortion." To be credible, that plan would have to begin with reversing every decision Obama has made on abortion to date. But note the phraseology, which suggests a fundamental disagreement. Who speaks of a "need for child abuse"? Or a need for white collar crime? Or a need for bribery of public officials? If there is a need for something, just how wrong is it? Planned Parenthood and its allies secured this language in the Democratic Platform last year because they did not want any suggestion from their party that the act of abortion is a moral wrong. But if it is not a moral wrong, then it is hardly something that needs to be reduced, particularly if, as Planned Parenthood insists, it is physically safe and negligible in its mental health implications.
President Obama and his administration have extraordinary message discipline when it comes to these matters. That discipline will be on display again soon in the health care debate when the Democrats on the Hill insist that they are deferring that question to some other body (likely an HHS commission that will likewise pronounce itself for "dialogue") for resolution. Is there any chance that an Obama-endorsed, government-financed health plan will exclude abortion and taxpayer participation in it? As a state legislator, Obama stood out as a man so concerned about protecting abortion in all circumstances that he led opposed laws to provide care for infants who survive the procedure.
Yesterday Notre Dame gave a high honor to such a man. He spoke eloquently. But the Jesuit fathers who taught me in high school and even a few of the Holy Cross priests who taught me at Notre Dame impressed on me to pay attention to what men do, not just what they say. They cited the Good Book on knowing people by their fruits. With Obama, that begins with what is being done to the fruit of the womb.