Sunday, May 17, 2009

What Do You Think?

Excerpt from Obama's Notre Dame commencement speech. Full text here:
The question, then, is how do we work through these conflicts? Is it possible for us to join hands in common effort? As citizens of a vibrant and varied democracy, how do we engage in vigorous debate? How does each of us remain firm in our principles, and fight for what we consider right, without demonizing those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side?

Nowhere do these questions come up more powerfully than on the issue of abortion.

As I considered the controversy surrounding my visit here, I was reminded of an encounter I had during my Senate campaign, one that I describe in a book I wrote called The Audacity of Hope. A few days after I won the Democratic nomination, I received an email from a doctor who told me that while he voted for me in the primary, he had a serious concern that might prevent him from voting for me in the general election. He described himself as a Christian who was strongly pro-life, but that's not what was preventing him from voting for me.

What bothered the doctor was an entry that my campaign staff had posted on my website - an entry that said I would fight "right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman's right to choose." The doctor said that he had assumed I was a reasonable person, but that if I truly believed that every pro-life individual was simply an ideologue who wanted to inflict suffering on women, then I was not very reasonable. He wrote, "I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words."

Fair-minded words.

After I read the doctor's letter, I wrote back to him and thanked him. I didn't change my position, but I did tell my staff to change the words on my website. And I said a prayer that night that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me. Because when we do that - when we open our hearts and our minds to those who may not think like we do or believe what we do - that's when we discover at least the possibility of common ground.

That's when we begin to say, "Maybe we won't agree on abortion, but we can still agree that this is a heart-wrenching decision for any woman to make, with both moral and spiritual dimensions.

So let's work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions by reducing unintended pregnancies, and making adoption more available, and providing care and support for women who do carry their child to term. Let's honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded in clear ethics and sound science, as well as respect for the equality of women."

Understand - I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. No matter how much we may want to fudge it - indeed, while we know that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory - 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.

Open hearts. Open minds. Fair-minded words.
Nathan O'Halloran, SJ

10 comments:

Paul said...

I hope he's serious about the conscience-clause stuff, though I suppose "sensible" and "respect for the equality of women" are the key words there.

PH

PS I was on campus today. The outdoor Mass was powerful stuff. I was also surprised by the crazies. Although I had been resenting their shenanigans all week, I was happy they were there. Nothing like a good protest.

Funniest sign of the day: a Protestant (looked like a Mennonite) had a sign saying "Obama and the Pope are going to hell." I had to laugh -- the guy was killing two birds with one stone!

Hope seminary is treating you well, Nate. BTW, I loved your reflection on the theology of women.

Bobadilla said...

I also hope his conscience clause statement is real. I'm also glad he honestly admitted that "the views of the two camps are irreconcilable."

I would agree with his view that we shouldn't demonize the other side, even on this very fundamental issue. But I would add two caveats to it.

First, with any political issue you will find some mature discussions and some less mature discussions. We should always try for the former, but inevitably you will get the latter from a number of people, especially on emotional issues such as this. That's unfortunate, but I still think the issue is usually more important than the tone of the debate.

Second, the sensible argument against Obama speaking and getting an honorary degree was never about respecting him as a person or questioning his motives. It was about the irreconcilable nature of his policies on abortion to the most fundamental commitments we have towards the unborn.

Anonymous said...

If you study history you will see that when you try to find common ground with one who talks sweet to your face and against you when he is with your moral enemy (like Planned parenthood) you get no common ground. Look at Chamberlain the PM of England. Nathan, Obama is like the serpent in the garden of Eden. Sweet talker to lull you to sleep. Your confirmation teacher

Amy Alvarado said...

I read Obama's words and my immediate thought was what my Mother used to tell me, "Pay little attention to what a man says but pay extraordinary attention to what he does". So far unfortunately his actions paint a very different picture from his words. I hope and think I represent a lot of pro-life people who hope that his policy's will reflect the broadmindedness his many words speak of in regard to abortion.


Sure we can discuss adoption laws, access to better healthcare for women, equality, abortion prevention but at the end of the day one child killed through state sanctioned legal abortion is blood on all our hands. I do want a dialogue with our President but I want him to be honest in his actions and his words about whether that dialogue can ever really take place.

My final thought is all the intellectuals I have read seem to think respecting one's conscience somehow doesn't include people carrying posters of aborted fetus's or strong words. They have been so easily dismissed by everyone as lunatics. Notre Dame sure didn't respect how they were moved by their consciences. No following your conscience in that regard landed them in jail.

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

I plan on remaining careful and discerning in regard to Obama's words and actions. You commented here while I was writing my last post in which I use the precise word, "lull" that you use in your comment. So I think we are on the same page.

But I refuse to make Obama a Hitler. I don't think they are alike. I don't think Obama is just a smooth talker. And I don't believe him to be possessed. The serpent intended to deceive. I don't think Obama intends to deceive any more than most politicians who equivocate regularly when they talk. Because I follow my bishops, I would have protested as well if I were in Notre Dame. But I believe I can do that at the same time that on an intellectual level I attempt to engage the man's thought and give him the benefit of his words. If he says he will grant conscientious exemption, than I pray he does. If he says he wants fewer abortions to be performed and more adoptions, then I pray he is speaking the truth and that we can work with him on this. And I hope we can show ourselves reasonable by working along with him on those things on which we agree rather than being kids who won't play if we don't get our way completely. We too must be as cunning as serpents, and serpents don't always strike to kill. We can speak and dialogue as well. Like in the case of Thomas More, this is where we transform culture. We put our foot down only when we must, when we have no other option. More looked for every way out before he took up his final position against the King. As a movement, we must get better at guerilla tactics rather than conventional warfare. Battles have many fronts, and one must be the diplomatic front. Outright warfare I do not believe to be the way. Aggressive nonviolent and intellectual engagement is what we need.

Nathan O'Halloran, SJ

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

You are right Amy. But Obama did not put them in jail. I wonder if he would have if it were up to him. He himself took part in a number of protests and has great respect for the civil rights movement. I agree with you completely about his words and actions. But he didn't arrest those people, and I'm not sure he would have.

Nathan O'Halloran, SJ

Amy Alvarado said...

Nate well I wasn't trying to be right. You asked me what I thought so I told you, haha! For the record though I never said anything about Obama having anything to do with the protesters. I said the intellectuals I had been reading in papers, blogs, and Notre Dame. Anyways I love your blog and tend to read it to much at work so I should go!!

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

Amy,
Sorry, I read the part about respecting conscience, and since Obama spoke about freedom of conscience for doctors, I presumed you were talking about him too quickly. My bad.

Nathan O'Halloran, SJ

Anonymous said...

Nathan, I said take the example of Chamberlain. I didn't talk about Hitler. Chamberlain took the words in good faith. Obama has already said his part about abortion, he is for it. FOCA was his intent. Now he is trying to appease us. He has seen that once one is elected you should not show all your radical ways. Look smooth. Bush did lull us to sleep and were paying the price. Your confirmation teacher. By the way hello Amy.

Ellen said...

I'm going to follow Amy's example and quote sage motherly advice -- "Handsome is as handsome does." I don't hate Obama. I pray for him almost everyday. But it's hard not to feel like he's throwing us a bone by his noble words, when looking at who he has surrounded himself with in his cabinet.

(I,too, really enjoy reading your blog, Nathan. I really liked what you wrote about the theology of women -- and that was without "really tackling" it. Wow.)