One element of President Barack Obama's commencement address at the University of Notre Dame (full text here) deserves consideration on its own. His discussion of faith tells us much not only about his own beliefs but about his approach toward those who believe:
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.
Standing in front of a crowd of thousands of students and hundreds of faculty, most of them Catholic and presumably most of those Catholics confirmed, President Obama redefined faith. The Christian understanding, of course, is summed up in Hebrews 11:1:
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
"The evidence of things not seen" is quite a different formula from "the belief in things not seen." Indeed, it is exactly the opposite. The theological virtue of faith enables us (in the words of the First Vatican Council) to "believe that what God has revealed is true." In other words, it does not "necessarily admit doubt" but helps us overcome our doubts about those things that we hope for and yet cannot see.
Does that mean that those who have the theological virtue of faith "know with certainty what God has planned for us or what He asks of us"? No. Faith is not fortune-telling. But that's not the same as saying that we do not have certainty about the truth.
Having redefined faith (without apparently raising any warning flags among the Catholics in his audience), President Obama then draws erroneous conclusions from his redefinition:
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. It should compel us to remain open, and curious, and eager to continue the moral and spiritual debate that began for so many of you within the walls of Notre Dame.
These are remarkable words coming from a man who expresses so few doubts of his own, who supports his actions through the most self-righteous words. When he declares that decisions regarding abortion and embryonic stem-cell research should be based on "sound science" and not "ideology," he does not mean that we should defund ESCR, since, unlike adult stem-cell research, it has yielded nothing useful, or that abortion should not be allowed because elementary biology makes it clear that the life growing inside a mother's womb is something separate from, though intimately connected with, her.
Rather, he simply identifies his own ideology with "sound science." The decision to abort one's child is "heart-wrenching," but technology allows us to do it, so that's "sound science." Parents are convinced that ESCR will cure their child of juvenile diabetes, so let's put "sound science" to work to determine if that is true. And if it is true, how can it be immoral?
It wouldn't be "fair-minded," after all, to deprive a child of a cure, just because some of us believe that it is never right to do evil so that good may come of it.
And that is ultimately where President Obama is headed with his redefinition of faith. Faith, in his formulation, "admits doubt," which should humble us and lead us to look for certainty elsewhere. And that certainty can be found in reason, shorn of the doubts that faith admits—in other words, a reason separated from faith:
And within our vast democracy, this doubt should remind us to persuade through reason, through an appeal whenever we can to universal rather than parochial principles, and most of all through an abiding example of good works, charity, kindness, and service that moves hearts and minds.
President Obama offered only one example of a universal principle—the Golden Rule, which he called "the law that binds people of all faiths and no faith together." He did not explain what he meant by "parochial principles," but in this context he did not have to. His version of faith "should temper our passions, and cause us to be wary of self-righteousness"—and clearly he means self-righteousness of the type that led people to protest his appearance at Notre Dame.
So the protection of unborn human life is a "parochial principle." If only those of us who believe that life begins at conception had a faith that would "admit doubt," then we could end the debate over abortion once and for all, by applying the Golden Rule. We don't want others interfering with our lives, so why would we interfere with theirs?
It is all so simple, so reasonable—and so wrong. And yet President Obama will be applauded today for a speech that attempted to unite, rather than divide; a speech that told us that we can all come together, as long as we set truth aside.
And that is why President Obama should never have been given a platform to speak at a Catholic university.
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