To talk or shout an issue for Catholics

President Barack Obama's commencement address at the University of Notre Dame last Sunday presented a visible and urgent choice for Catholics. There was, to one side, the Rev. John Jenkins, president of Notre Dame, who had invited Obama and who quoted the Catholic Church's pastoral constitution on the church in the modern world to say how much Catholics who hold to their faith must reach out to understand those who disagree with them.

Father Jenkins also spoke clearly to say that Notre Dame disagrees with the Obama administration on abortion and stem cell research, even as it welcomed the president's willingness to join in a dialogue. To the other side were the shouters disrupting the speech with cries of "Stop killing our babies!" and almost 40 protesters arrested outside while carrying placards of dismembered fetuses.

Many of the Catholic bishops of the United States have registered their own displeasure with Obama's appearance at Notre Dame, expressing concern over what it will say about Catholics. It is easy to see that it did say something. Yet, in the wake of the speech, the overall effect was less to cause scandal or raise questions about fundamental moral teachings, as the bishops feared. Instead, the event suggested a theme evoked by the president: as much as the nation finds itself at a crossroads of history, so do Catholics.

The entire Notre Dame episode has been a potent opportunity for Catholic soul-searching at a time when it has been particularly necessary. The matter of Catholic citizenship has been as highly fraught over the last five years as any time since the election of John F. Kennedy.

The questions largely are the same as they always have been — how to live the Catholic faith in this pluralist democracy. But regrettably, this perennial question of faith recently has taken the shape of a political argument. Matters have grown so strange that Sen. Robert Casey (D-Pa.), a notable anti-abortion rights Democrat, may face sanctions from his bishop for one vote in the Senate (to confirm pro-abortion rights advocate Kathleen Sebelius to the Cabinet). The debates over whether Notre Dame should "honor" a pro-abortion rights politician or whether a Catholic who voted for Obama could receive the Eucharist seem, more than anything else, like attempts to draw boundaries and establish a kind of political litmus test to live on the church's side of a cultural line.

While the faith that informs our morals never should be removed from our political decision making, certainly it remains true that political and social life are complex, and that religious faith is beneficial in political life when it is a source of healing, rather than division. In good conscience, people can reach different decisions about difficult issues. It takes nothing away from any faith conviction to acknowledge this, or to see disagreement as an opportunity to persuade people, rather than an imperative to silence them.

These thoughts are especially timely because of two recent events. Fifty-four percent of Catholics voted for Obama in 2008, and two recent polls reveal that a majority of Americans now identify themselves as anti-abortion rights. If the number of anti-abortion rights voters is growing, yet comfortable majorities will elect a pro-abortion rights Democrat, we can say that voters appear to be increasingly willing and able to welcome the complexity of our political problems.

This is potentially disastrous news for the Republican Party, which has rested comfortably on anti-abortion rights voters — especially, Catholics — since 1980. It is no better news for Catholic bishops who have wedded their political influence so closely to opposing abortion above all other issues for just as long. Probably, these implications can explain the shrill tenor of the last two months.

American Catholics must choose whether they are with the shouters or those who will engage in dialogue. The irony is, as Father Jenkins made clear last Sunday, neither side appears to be any more pro-life than the other. Indeed, the whole Notre Dame affair demonstrates that there are many ways to express a pro-life point of view in our political system. The next electoral cycle will tell us whether the trend away from the shouters will continue. We should all hope that it will.

Steven P. Millies is an assistant professor of political science at the University of South Carolina Aiken.