Obama pitting Catholics against bishops: Weigel

27 May 2009

By The Record

Respected Catholic commentator, George Weigel, says Obama may have made himself leader of dissident Catholics.


George Weigel. Photo: CNS.


WASHINGTON, DC (CNA) – Catholic commentator George Weigel has warned that US President Barack Obama risks assuming the headship of the dissident wing of US Catholicism, pitting Catholic intellectuals and institutions against their bishops.
Weigel, biographer of Pope John Paul II, told CNA that Obama has inserted himself into intra-Catholic disputes by trying to define who a “real Catholic” is with his May 17 address at Notre Dame University in the US.
In an essay for National Review Online, Weigel said it was “surprising” and “disturbing” that President Obama decided to “insert himself” into “the ongoing Catholic debate over the boundaries of Catholic identity and the applicability of settled Catholic convention in the public square.”
He said that Obama tried to settle “the decades-long intra-Catholic culture war” in favour of one faction: “the faction that had supported his candidacy and that had spent the first months of his administration defending his policies.”
In an exclusive comment to CNA, Weigel compared the effort to the historical phenomenon of “Gallicanism,” the French bishops’ past efforts to establish a church generally independent of papal authority.
“This is a very serious business, with the president of the United States putting himself in charge of the Gallican wing of the Catholic Church in the United States – the difference being that this new Gallicanism isn’t local bishops vs Rome but intellectuals and their institutions and magazines vs. local bishops and Rome,” Weigel told CNA.
Weigel said that the “politically savvy” White House and its allies among Catholic progressive intellectuals may have intended to secure Obama’s political advantage among Catholic voters with his appearance at Notre Dame.
To secure his political position, Weigel charged, “the president of the United States decided that he would define what it means to be a real Catholic in 21st-century America – not the bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend, who in sorrow declined to attend Notre Dame’s commencement.”
Weigel also argued that Obama indirectly presented himself as a more significant authority than the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, who had “explicitly and unambiguously” instructed Catholic institutions not to honour pro-abortion rights politicians.
Obama’s May 17 commencement speech at Notre Dame, Weigel argued in NRO, tried to suggest “who the real Catholics in America are” and put forward the late Archbishop of Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin as the model for being “congenial and gentle” and for “always trying to bring people together.”
While praising Cardinal Bernardin’s “gallant response” to a fatal cancer diagnosis, Weigel said Cardinal Bernardin’s “seamless garment” approach to public policy ended up helping Catholic politicians and laymen dodge moral objections to their support for a permissive abortion regime.
According to Weigel, the US bishops abandoned the “seamless garment” metaphor in 1998 to better emphasise the foundational nature of the life issues.
He also suggested that President Obama’s praise for Cardinal Bernardin was an implicit criticism of contemporary bishops who are vocally pro-life, like the present Archbishop of Chicago Cardinal Francis George.