For several weeks now, L'Osservatore Romano has published glowing, star-struck, teenage praise of Pres. Barack Obama, while blithely ignoring what its praise means in the American context. It fails to grasp the full threat Obama poses for the American Catholic conscience. Several leading American bishops are distraught, and have asked for help: L'Osservatore Romano must learn of the immense scandal it is causing in America.
The most recent example was in regard to the young president's mendacious talk at the University of Notre Dame on May 17. There are five crucial facts of which L'Osservatore Romano seems--like a blind observer of faraway events--completely ignorant.
One. In 2004, the American Catholic bishops formally declared that Catholic educational and other institutions in the U.S. ought not to give honors to any public leader who speaks against (defies) our fundamental moral principles. This was a solemn declaration, an explicit part of the bishops' teaching magisterium. In the case of Obama, two fundamental principles were at stake: the right to life and freedom of conscience.
Two. About 40 percent of America's 65 million Catholics attend Mass at least once weekly. Most of these Catholics stand with the natural law to oppose abortion, often passionately. For some years, and even in part today, Catholic laymen and women have been more public and fierce in their hatred for abortion than many bishops, who at times have seemed to be afraid to take the lead and voice their consciences in public. But in recent years, more and more American bishops have been quite brave about this issue, and embarrassed many of their brother bishops into public support for the pro-life cause. The late John Cardinal O'Connor of New York was an outstanding leader in this respect.
By contrast, those Catholics who go to Mass less than weekly (or, in about 10 percent of cases, never) have virtually the same pro-abortion views as the general secular and latitudinarian Protestant population.
Thus, when the secular press writes of "Catholics," one must distinguish, in one's own mind, which Catholics they mean, the most committed in practicing their faith, or the less serious and less observant. It is crystal clear that the most committed Catholics are nearly all pro-life--if not in all circumstances, then in virtually all. The less committed tend to support abortion in one way or another.
Three. In the U.S., abortion law is extremely radical, with little leeway for compromises. The Supreme Court decided the issue in 1973, without seeking the consent of the people, and without support in the text of the Constitution. Essentially, the Court said that every woman at any moment has the right to have an abortion, right up to the moment of birth. This is the most extreme law in any civilized nation. This is the standard that secular people and their sympathizers now take as the supreme measure of "reason." Any opposition to it is painted as extremism.
Four. Barack Obama, the bearer of so much promise as the fulfillment of the dream of those many Americans who died to overcome slavery, segregation, and second-class status for the children of Africa, has in fact gone farther than any president in American history in supporting abortion.
He has supported what is euphemistically called "partial-birth abortion," which is actually disguised infanticide: An abortionist induces birth, and just as the infant is beginning to emerge from the birth canal, the abortionist plunges scissors into its brain to kill it, so that, technically, it is dead before full delivery. And Obama has opposed legislation that would have forbidden the voluntary throwing into a hospital garbage bin of any child on whom an abortion was attempted, but who nonetheless was born alive. As an Illinois state senator and then as a U.S. senator, Obama spoke against banning this practice. He was virtually alone in U.S. politics in going to such an extreme, just to please his pro-abortion constituency (which is central to his political base).
During the 2008 campaign, he memorably noted that he would not "punish" his two young daughters by obliging them to give birth to a baby they might have conceived unintentionally. That a new child is a "punishment" is a position never before taken by a major political candidate in the United States.
L'Osservatore Romano knows not the positions it is supporting, when it supports President Obama on abortion. Neither does it understand the "code," the doublespeak, in which pro-abortion partisans speak in the U.S. The mainstream pro-abortion leadership now has as its first priority the "Freedom of Choice Act," which would enshrine abortion as a woman's natural "right." President Obama has promised the pro-abortion leadership that he will support such a bill. Its main thrust is to repeal any of the legislation since 1973 that puts at least some procedural limits on abortion: parental consent for abortions for children under 18, mandatory instruction of women seeking abortions to inform them of alternatives and support groups, mandatory waiting periods of a few days in order that the woman's consent will be free and deliberate. All these would be swept away.
Five. Worse, this Freedom of Choice Act would infringe the freedom of conscience of health-care workers. Anyone who would stand in the way of abortion could be recognized as a criminal. Thus doctors and nurses, even in Christian hospitals, who found participation in abortions abhorrent would be forced by law to practice abortion when requested, and forbidden to suggest alternatives. The practical upshot of this would be the refusal of Catholic and some other Christian hospitals to participate in abortions, and the closing of their obstetrical facilities — and perhaps the closing of entire hospitals. (Christian--mainly Catholic--hospitals comprise almost a third of all hospitals in the U.S.)
In his Notre Dame address, President Obama seemed to retreat a step when he said that any Freedom of Choice Act he signed would have "sensible conscience clauses." But this phrase is a term of art developed by the pro-abortion extremists. They are willing to "grant" that a doctor or a nurse may for reasons of conscience refuse to participate in an abortion--unless in an emergency they are the only staff available. In that case, the "constitutional right" of abortion would take precedence over their consciences.
In general, L' Osservatore Romano seems not to grasp the fundamental realities of abortion politics in America. For the pro-abortion forces here, "reason" and "right" and "sensible" mean supporting abortion. Anything else is unreasonable, against women's rights, and lacking in all sense. One highly placed appointee of President Obama even compares the condition of a woman who wants an abortion to that of the slave woman in America prior to 1863--caught in a kind of mandatory, unwilling servitude. President Obama's passionate speech at Notre Dame urged an impressionable young audience to keep "open hearts and open minds," and to "use only fair-minded words." This sounds liberal, and reasonable, and sweet--until, that is, one recognizes that only the pro-abortion people can speak in no other way than with open minds and open hearts and fair-minded speech. For they know that reason, good sense, natural right, and the Supreme Court are on their side. The president is speaking code, deceiving the unwary.
The only people the president disarms with these words are those who are convinced that abortion is the deliberate taking of the life of a unique human individual (with its own unique DNA, distinct from that of its mother and its father). It is they and only they whom the president now summons to listen to the other side, to compromise, to pull clouds of uncertainty over their previous convictions, and to begin to waver. Obama is disarming the pro-life side, and only the pro-life side. The poor young students of Notre Dame, and their inexcusably uncritical and politically unsophisticated professors, are undone by a surface appeal to reason and civility, which is actually a call for their unconditional surrender.
Perhaps, in that audience on May 17, there was one young, unintentionally pregnant woman in attendance, determined to bring the child within her to birth, despite the pleas of her parents (and maybe even of the health professionals she consulted on campus). Perhaps she found herself suddenly swayed by the president of the United States. She could hear him being cheered lustily on by the current and former presidents of Notre Dame, and by some 11,000 others in the stands. She took his plea to "open her mind and heart" as the siren call to have an abortion. Perhaps there are scores of thousands of other voters around the nation who will learn the "message of Notre Dame." How many times during the next four years will President Obama incant, "As I said at Notre Dame . . . "? How many young women will learn of this new, "sensible" common ground, and capitulate to the new reasonableness, which is actually reason gone mad?
There is no doubt that Barack Obama is the fruit of the dream of Martin Luther King Jr., come probably a generation before anyone believed it would happen--the Great Black Hope of the whole nation, called to redeem our nation's primal sin, the enslavement of Africans. There is no doubt either that he is a politician of amazing talent, unparalleled in our history, since his main skill is with delivering words--to this point, only words. And he is a golden-tongued, a honey-tongued speaker, skillful as no one else in making everyone in his audience, even those on opposite sides of an issue, believe that he is siding with them. It takes unprecedented skills to decipher what Obama means to do. Slowly, we in America are learning.
What his actual record is based on--including the multitude of abortion proponents he has appointed to the most important and sensitive positions in national government--is an extreme reading of the abortion project. He says abortion should be "safe, legal, and rare." Yet he has never restricted, only expanded, the abortion license, at every single turn so far in his young life. You would think it might bother him that 37 percent of all those aborted in the U.S. since 1973--some 13 million youngsters, perhaps some as talented as he--have been black. You might think that widening the circle of those Americans whose rights "to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" are protected would be his No. 1 aim in the law. But you would not so far be able to produce a single bit of evidence that that is so, and an abundance of evidence, pressed down and running over, that it is not.
Why on earth, then, does L'Osservatore Romano side with the abortionists, and against the besieged, struggling minority of churchgoing Catholics who find abortion abhorrent, and an intrinsic and unrationalizable evil? Were the great pro-life popes of the past not fully serious when they called abortion an intrinsic evil?
We ask Rome for bread, and L'Osservatore Romano gives us stones.
Michael Novak is the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at AEI.