VATICAN CITY — One of the biggest debates among U.S. Catholics at the moment is about Notre Dame University’s invitation to President Barack Obama to give this year’s commencement address and receive an honorary degree.
But so far, the issue has not had the same resonance at the Vatican — at least publicly. There’s been no Vatican statement, and the Vatican newspaper and Vatican Radio have yet to mention the controversy.
When Catholic News Service requested reaction from Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, head of the Congregation for Catholic Education (which, of course, deals with Catholic universities), we received a polite “no comment.”
Based on conversations with Roman Curia officials, I have no doubt that the Obama-Notre Dame question is on the minds of U.S. priests and bishops working at the Vatican. With statements pouring in on one side or another back home, how could it be otherwise?
But non-Americans at the Vatican tend to see the issue in a different light, I think.
For one thing, they seem more comfortable with the idea of accommodating dignitaries and civil authorities in a church setting, even when their political positions aren’t in line with the church’s teaching.
I emphasize that these were casual conversations, not a comprehensive survey of opinions. But two episodes in particular have been mentioned to me by Vatican officials over the last week.
One was that French President Nicholas Sarkozy received the title of honorary canon of the Basilica of St. John Lateran during his visit to Rome in 2007, a tradition that goes back centuries. Sarkozy, who also met Pope Benedict, supports legal abortion.
The Vatican and the Diocese of Rome seemed to have no problem with honoring the twice-divorced Sarkozy, who says he is a Catholic. In fact, the Lateran vespers service to bestow the title was “all pomp and circumstance,” as one Vatican official put it.
The second thing mentioned was that when Pope Benedict was invited to give a major talk at the Rome’s Sapienza University in 2008, the criticism and protest by some professors and students who didn’t want to give him a platform caused the pope to cancel the appearance. The episode was viewed at the Vatican as a prime example of intolerance.
Last year, a minor controversy erupted at Rome’s Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, known as the Angelicum, when Cherie Blair was invited to speak on “Women and Human Rights.” Some U.S. and British groups called her “pro-abortion” and tried to get the invitation rescinded; the university refused to cancel, despite receiving hundreds of complaints. During her talk, Blair said she had difficulties with the church’s teaching on responsible parenthood, but implied that her problems were with church teaching on contraception, not abortion.