Monday, May 18, 2009

Benedict and Obama

I'm not an Obama cheerleader like many I know. He's a politician, and they don't deserve to have cheerleaders. They're not playing a game. They're supposed to be doing serious stuff. But I thought Obama gave a good speech at Notre Dame. Now, you may tell me, his fair words are his way of wooing us into apathy while he spins his demonic plots. Possibly. But while not allowing him to lull me to sleep with his soothing voice, I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt as to what he may think. I think this is the fair intellectual approach to his speech. We should listen to what he says while keeping an eye on what he does.

I don't like a lot of what he does. But I didn't like a lot of what Bush did. And I didn't hear many bishops and prominent Catholics speaking out loudly about that. I believe that was a tragedy. Like Obama, Bush often spoke with a double tongue. We gave him the benefit of the doubt and then found him to be a liar (and not a very good one). We failed in that regard. Catholics were too excited about his "pro-life" stance actually watch what he was doing. So why should we give Obama a chance? Why should we listen to him if he will probably be just like Bush, saying one thing and doing another? Good question. But for one, I think he makes more sense than Bush when he talks. He says things that can actually be engaged on an intellectual level. He makes arguments that are coherent. And he founds these on a general world view that I can often accept. So for that reason, I will try to engage him, and encourage others to do the same, hoping that engagement will genuinely change hearts and minds.

I think one reason I do this is because he often sounds a lot like Benedict XVI. I know, I know, blasphemy. But they are both good speakers who often speak about similar things. For example, check out the following quotes from Obama's speech, my favorite quotes:
We must decide how to save God's creation from a changing climate that threatens to destroy it.
Since becoming pontiff, this issue has been one of those at the forefront of Benedict's teachings. He has made it a point to make front and center the question of man's relationship with creation and how we treat the earth. Our attitude toward creation should be biblically based, not Kant based. For all the benefits that transcendental philosophy has contributed to the pursuit of wisdom, this one statement of Kant I never grow tired of quoting, since I believe it opened up for the modern era a regime of domination towards the natural world under which we still live:
Reason must approach nature with the view, indeed, of receiving information from it, not, however, in the character of a pupil, who listens to all that his master chooses to tell him, but in that of a judge, who compels the witnesses to reply to those questions which he himself thinks fit to propose. To this single idea must the revolution be ascribed, by which, after groping in the dark for so many centuries, natural science was at length conducted into the path of certain progress.
Benedict has clearly and decisively declared battle against this modernist heresy, and in doing so, he aligns himself with many in America who would be considered part of the political Left, including Obama. Obama, like Benedict, links reverence for nature with the biblical world view rather than the Kantian one, and on this issue we can find common ground.
In short, we must find a way to live together as one human family.
Another fundamental message of Benedict's pontificate has been the principle of solidarity. Over and over he reminds us -- as John Paul II did -- that we live in a global world now and all are truly responsible for all. The poor suffer from the greed of the rich and poor countries from the "progress" of rich countries. And for Benedict, we are not one human family because we all have a rational intellect. We are one family because we have one destiny. This is an eschatological link first, rather than an ontological one. And because it is eschatological, it effects every realm of human interaction, since at least partially speaking, the Kingdom of God is already among us.
Unfortunately, finding that common ground - recognizing that our fates are tied up, as Dr. King said, in a "single garment of destiny" - is not easy. Part of the problem, of course, lies in the imperfections of man - our selfishness, our pride, our stubbornness, our acquisitiveness, our insecurities, our egos; all the cruelties large and small that those of us in the Christian tradition understand to be rooted in original sin. We too often seek advantage over others. We cling to outworn prejudice and fear those who are unfamiliar. Too many of us view life only through the lens of immediate self-interest and crass materialism; in which the world is necessarily a zero-sum game.
Like Benedict, Obama realizes that a description of human reality that does not include the doctrine of Original Sin is an incomplete description. Good place to begin.
The gay activist and the evangelical pastor may both deplore the ravages of HIV/AIDS, but find themselves unable to bridge the cultural divide that might unite their efforts.

The fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable. Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature.
Acknowledging this gulf is important.
At the time, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin was the Archbishop of Chicago. For those of you too young to have known him, he was a kind and good and wise man. A saintly man. I can still remember him speaking at one of the first organizing meetings I attended on the South Side. He stood as both a lighthouse and a crossroads - unafraid to speak his mind on moral issues ranging from poverty, AIDS, and abortion to the death penalty and nuclear war. And yet, he was congenial and gentle in his persuasion, always trying to bring people together; always trying to find common ground. Just before he died, a reporter asked Cardinal Bernardin about this approach to his ministry. And he said, "You can't really get on with preaching the Gospel until you've touched minds and hearts."
The fact that Obama can quote a man who profoundly disagreed with him on the issue of abortion is impressive to me. We must find role models among those with whom we often disagree.
But remember too that the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt. It is the belief in things not seen. It is beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us or what He asks of us, and those of us who believe must trust that His wisdom is greater than our own. This doubt should not push us away from our faith. But it should humble us. It should temper our passions, and cause us to be wary of self-righteousness.
Remember that in the end, we are all fishermen.
I liked his speech. I hope he was speaking the truth about how he actually thinks and what he actually believes. It's hard to trust politicians. But even to hear him say the things he says was a surprise to me. If the religious Right and the religious Left can listen to him, it would at least bring us much closer to one another in conversation, even while we continue to hold irreconcilable views. The Society of Jesus, for example, spans the religious Right and Left. If we do this right, this speech can bring us closer ideologically, and then provide us with a template for combatting the culture of death in our culture and our own hearts. What I like about Obama is that he does not presume that the pro-life movement will or even should go away. He doesn't caricature like Bush did, and for that I'm thankful. Now we just need to change his heart.

Nathan O'Halloran, SJ


Nathan O'Halloran, SJ / Mason Slidell said...

Great insights Nathan!

Admittedly, dialogue is an overused word that generally serves as cover for doing nothing. And maybe, as the years move forward, we will see that Obama is using the carrot of dialogue to do nothing. If so, he will join a long line of presidents who fiddled while millions of children died.

Republican presidents sometimes came through with limited legal protections for the unborn, but they rarely showed any appetite to address the underlying causes for abortion – poverty, broken families and horrible sexual ethics among the young. Democratic presidents talked about poverty and families and such and, on the campaign trail, would even mention that they hoped abortions would be increasingly rare, but it was only talk.

In his speech at Notre Dame, Obama has gone further than any Democratic president before him. I have never heard a Democratic president (or presidential candidate) express the need for the Left to be more hesitant and even possibly doubtful about the certainty of their position on abortion. Ok, maybe Obama doesn’t mean a word of it, but there was absolutely no need for him to be so rhetorically accommodating to the pro-life position. If nothing else, we have for the first time real words to quote back to Obama as we try to build a culture of life. No, abortion will not be made illegal in the next four years, but that is no excuse to do nothing for the sake of purity. The pro-life/pro-choice debate has grown quite stale. We can be both activists and pragmatists. How about trying to work for something real this time?

Mason Slidell

Alida said...

I thought you had some great insights, too! I tried to post a comment with some opinions last night but it didn't work, so I just wrote my own thing in my blog (but it's definitely not all of what I would have written here haha).