You can read the transcript of his speech here. It really comes down to a "let's agree to disagree" statement where abortion is concerned. And of course under that formulation, abortions will never end. Which is what Obama wants.
As crucial as abortion is, there are other issues. Above all, Notre Dame has a symbolic importance to American Catholics that other institutions do not have. Obama could have given this speech at Georgetown, or Marquette, or the University of San Francisco, and it wouldn't have mattered nearly as much. But because Obama came to Notre Dame, it matters a lot more.
I'll have more to say about all of the following points, but as I've thought about this moment, I've come to the following conclusions.
- Catholic universities, and Catholics generally, have to make a choice that everyone else in the West has to make; do you look to tradition and the accumulated wisdom of the ages, as expressed through faith, religious teachings, long-standing cultural norms and the hard-got lessons of human experience, or do you look to the secular worldview that concerns itself exclusively with this world? The good news about living in the West is this: at this time, in 2009, you can still choose. You get to choose whether you put your faith in the word of God and the teachings of your church, or you can pay more credence to man-created documents like the UN Charter, the Geneva Conventions and suchlike. It's my impression that many Catholics, including many who are leaders of Catholic institutions in this country, are more concerned with man-created documents than they are with engaging and understanding the teachings of the Church.
- We've seen this same dynamic for years taking place with our Protestant brethren, especially in some of the mainline Protestant churches. And the results have not been good for these churches, which have struggled to maintain membership and support as they have drifted into a therapeutic secularism that is more concerned with the blandishments of this world than the promise of the next. It is precisely because the evangelicals have understood that one's faith in God is inextricably tied to the next world that they have been able to gain adherents.
- If you hold the secular worldview you necessarily put your faith in the world itself, and if you see the world in those terms, Barack Obama is an attractive figure. He would seem to be the culmination of much that has been long desired. Many people who see the world in this way are in leadership positions in our most prominent institutions. Notre Dame is one of those places.
- We often hear that the influence of the Church is on the wane in the West. This is especially the case in Europe, where secularism is a much more powerful force. The Church, which has ever adapted, understands this well. That is why the greatest energy in the Church right now is coming from places like Africa and South America. Benedict XVI may very well be the last European Pope for a long time.
- If Benedict leaves the stage in the next 2-3 years, I would hardly be surprised if the next Pope is a person of color. And if the next Pope is from someplace other than Europe, he will immediately become a rival to Obama on the world stage.
- In the past, European and American priests were missionaries to places like Africa and South America. In 2009 it is not unusual to attend a Mass in the United States in which the celebrant is a priest from Africa, or India, or Vietnam. I have been to many such Masses. These priests are, in the main, priests who came to the priesthood under the long, transformational papacy of John Paul II. These priests are now missionaries to the West. And they are traditionalists. They are not men who hold a secular worldview. They will be part of the transformation that is coming to the Church in the West. They are evangelicals in the context of the Catholic Church. And the younger bishops and archbishops who are coming to power within the hierarchy in the United States, men like Chaput in Denver and Nienstedt here in St. Paul-Minneapolis, are like-minded. They are the ones who drove the conference of U.S. bishops to condemn Notre Dame. They are the ones who pushed older leaders like Francis Cardinal George.
- The current leadership at Notre Dame is not beholden to the new leadership that is emerging today. But that too will change.
- Many conservative Catholics have watched the long march of secularism and worry that secularism will destroy the Church in this country. But the ground is moving under the secularists' feet. And in 20 years time, I suspect that we will view the honoring of Barack Obama by a major Catholic university not as the beginning of the end of the Church's influence in America, but rather as the moment where the secular tide began to recede.