ROME, OCT. 7, 2009 ( An article written by a top Vatican theologian may have missed the mark and underestimated the "gravity" of the decision made by the University of Notre Dame last spring to invite President Barack Obama to speak at commencement, says the archbishop of Denver.

Archbishop Charles Chaput said this in an article appearing Tuesday in the Italian daily Il Foglio.

The article, published in full by the Catholic News Agency, directly addressed an essay written by Cardinal Georges Cottier, a retired theologian of the Pontifical Household, and published in July by the Catholic magazine 30 Days.

Cardinal Cottier's article downplayed the disagreement voiced publicly by more than 80 bishops and 300,000 laypeople in the weeks leading up to the president's scheduled address, and praised Obama for what he termed his "humble realism."

"Regrettably and unintentionally, Cardinal Cottier's articulate essay undervalues the gravity of what happened at Notre Dame," Archbishop Chaput affirmed. "It also overvalues the consonance of President Obama's thinking with Catholic teaching."

The archbishop, noting that he speaks for himself, and not for all U.S. bishops, acknowledged that Cardinal Cottier's essay "made a valuable contribution to Catholic discussion of the new American president."

"Our faith connects us across borders," he added. "What happens in one nation may have an impact on many others. World opinion about America’s leaders is not only appropriate; it should be welcomed."

Point of departure

The archbishop explained that the outcry against Obama's appearance at Notre Dame had less to do with a personal attack than a very real and fundamental disagreement with the president's "views on vital bioethical issues, including but not limited to abortion, differ sharply from Catholic teaching."

"Much is made, in some religious circles, of the President's sympathy for Catholic social teaching," the prelate explained. "But defense of the unborn child is a demand of social justice. There is no 'social justice' if the youngest and weakest among us can be legally killed. Good programs for the poor are vital, but they can never excuse this fundamental violation of human rights."

Archbishop Chaput also explained that the timing and nature of the invitation caused the conflict: "At a time when the American bishops as a body had already voiced strong concern about the new administration’s abortion policies, Notre Dame not only made the president the centerpiece of its graduation events, but also granted him an honorary doctorate of laws -- this, despite his deeply troubling views on abortion law and related social issues."

But the "real source of Catholic frustration," said Archbishop Chaput, was that Notre Dame "ignored and violated the guidance of America’s bishops" in a 2004 document that "urged Catholic institutions to refrain from honoring public officials who disagreed with Church teaching on grave matters."

"Thus, the fierce debate in American Catholic circles this spring over the Notre Dame honor for Mr. Obama was not finally about partisan politics," he explained. "It was about serious issues of Catholic belief, identity and witness -- triggered by Mr. Obama's views -- which Cardinal Cottier, writing from outside the American context, may have misunderstood."

Common connection

Archbishop Chaput also commented on the connection Cardinal Cottier made in his article between "President Obama’s frequently stated search for political 'common ground' and the Catholic emphasis on pursing the 'common good.'"

"These goals -- seeking common ground and pursuing the common good -- can often coincide," the archbishop noted. "But they are not the same thing. They can sharply diverge in practice.

"So-called common ground abortion policies may actually attack the common good because they imply a false unity; they create a ledge of shared public agreement too narrow and too weak to sustain the weight of a real moral consensus. The common good is never served by tolerance for killing the weak -- beginning with the unborn."

Finally, the archbishop praised Cardinal Cottier for reminding "his readers of the mutual respect and cooperative spirit required by citizenship in a pluralist democracy."

"But pluralism is never an end in itself," Archbishop Chaput noted. "It is never an excuse for inaction.

"As President Obama himself acknowledged at Notre Dame, democracy depends for its health on people of conviction fighting hard in the public square for what they believe -- peacefully, legally but vigorously and without apologies."

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