Three-and-a-half years ago, I sat in a coffee shop in Kampala, Uganda, sipping my brew and listening nonchalantly to the sound of world news coverage. I had heard about the brouhaha surrounding Notre Dame’s decision to invite President Obama to deliver the 2009 commencement address and receive an honorary doctorate. Nonetheless, it was a surreal experience when the world news coverage shifted from the swine flu, global food riots, the economic crisis, and maybe even Balloon Boy (or was that not until October?), to coverage of my home university.
Now, the University of Notre Dame has invited both President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to speak on campus (press release, 24 September), to relatively little fanfare. Catholic pro-life advocates including Ann and Eric Scheidler of the Pro-Life Action League have expressed little concern over the latest invitations. (It is worth noting that both invitations have been the latest installments in a long-standing tradition.) Setting aside the 2009 events, by inviting the two presidential candidates to speak on campus during this election season, Notre Dame models the allegiance-to-no-party and conversation-with-both that ought to characterize U.S. Catholicism at the institutional level today.
If the 2009 events managed to raise the question of what constitutes scandal, the 2012 invitation to both candidates, should they oblige, can model in another way the authentically Catholic citizenship that the U.S. Bishops describe in Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship (2007). How? Not least by an effort to ask the kinds of questions we all should ask:
(1) Unlike many voters, Catholics agree fundamentally on a moral framework that guides our discernment as voters (Forming Consciences 9-12). The formation of our consciences, which is to take place before any party allegiance, involves study of the teaching of the church. Our main questions are about how the values we share can be reflected in the laws of this country.
“Governor Romney, because we believe that every person has a right to affordable, accessible healthcare, your overt intention to repeal the healthcare bill raises questions for us. How are you going to ensure that people with pre-existing conditions, middle-class people, and especially the poor and vulnerable can access affordable health care?”
“President Obama, because we believe that ending the life of an unborn child is always evil, we cannot support your policy position. How are you going to reduce the number of abortions?”
(2) This shared moral framework impels us not to ask narrowly what the candidate can do for us, but to ask what the candidate can do for the common good and to uphold human dignity, especially of the poor and vulnerable (Forming Consciences 50-51).
“President Obama, ending the wars is not enough. What will your administration do to end the U.S. role in the arms trade and aid refugees? How will you reallocate the human and financial resources now available for the benefit of the poor?”
(3) We never fit comfortably into either party but continually press both parties for better policies (Forming Consciences 14, 16, 55, 58, etc.)
“Governor Romney, making abortion illegal is not the same as ending it. How are you going to reduce the number of abortions, before or—hypothetically—after Roe v. Wade is overturned? How will you make sure expectant mothers and fathers have the resources they need?”
In addition to these questions, Notre Dame students—and all of us in our own communities—must make a prudential judgment about the likelihood that each presidential candidate will actually enact his policy positions, in light of the current political climate, the candidate’s integrity, and the powers of the presidency. We must discern, using our formed consciences, which issues matter most. We must discern for whom we should vote. And finally, after the election, we must continue to advocate for just policies. All of this, of course, is also true for state and local elections.
By inviting the two presidential candidates to speak on campus, Notre Dame is already modeling the independence from political parties that must characterize U.S. Catholic institutions today. If the candidates accept, Notre Dame has the chance to also model the kinds of questions Catholics can use to discern whose box to check on Election Day—questions about priorities, integrity, power, and effective policies.
And, perhaps most importantly, all of us this election season have the chance to witness prophetically to the love of Christ—not only in the policies we support but in the way we interact with other people.