Obama's challenge to the Church

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obama, Flickr image by BohPhotoLike the rest of the United States, the Catholic Church bishops have had to deal with Barack Obama. His election was a political challenge to many of them. But his presidency also poses a deeper spiritual challenge.

During his campaigns for the Democratic nomination and then for the Presidency, the standard by which the most vocal Catholic Bishops judged Obama and the Democratic party was his position on issues of personal morality: on abortion, same sex marriages, and on the use of embryos for research.

Some bishops dramatised their focus on these issues by threatening to refuse communion to Catholic candidates who supported liberalising abortion. The majority were more circumspect.

The electoral support for Obama, including by Catholic voters, left the more aggressive bishops exposed. It also marginalised the Catholic Church in its capacity to influence the policies of the new administration, including on issues of personal morality.

The bishops responded by addressing a letter to Obama. In it they offered qualified cooperation and set out the criteria by which they would judge his policies. They reasserted the Catholic position on issues of personal morality, but also included issues of public morality, like war, poverty, and access to welfare and medical care.

But the deeper challenge that Obama would pose to the Catholic Bishops, and indeed to all church leaders, was adumbrated in his speech after being sworn in. His speech suggested that he may be more effective in appealing to deep spiritual themes than church leaders have been.

The content of his speech was properly public. He spoke of a nation in crisis that faced domestic and international problems. He called for a concerted effort to meet the difficulties. The virtues to which he called people were civic virtues.

But his powerful rhetoric was based in religious imagery. He described the journey of the nation, echoing the journey of the Israelites from Egypt into the Promised Land. He spoke of the trials of the journey, the virtue and faith of earlier generations of the American people, the present crisis, the opportunity for a new beginning, and the promise of the future. It was a powerful vision saturated in Biblical allusions.

His central point was to insist on the urgency of the times. He emphasised that 'this day' called for a change of heart, for setting aside old and tired attitudes and embracing the new.

He dismissed those who have forgotten 'what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage. What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them — that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.'

In referring to 'stale political arguments' Obama clearly had in mind the policies and practices encouraged by the Bush administration. But his remarks also challenged the way in which many Catholics, including bishops, had engaged in public life.

They had commended life issues in negative and divisive ways, grounded them in large principles that spoke only to the converted, and appealed only to Catholic authorities. They sought to win popular support by isolating and ostracising their opponents.

Obama's challenge to all the churches, and not simply to the Catholic bishops, is to draw more fully on the resources of Christian tradition to present a large public vision in attractive terms.

This is the heart of Christian faith. Respect for human beings at the most vulnerable points of their journey is central to that vision. But it needs to be set within a compelling Christian narrative, not simply within a Christian philosophy. The narrative needs to stress both urgency and hope. Obama's 'this day', after all, echoes the powerful 'this day' of Jesus' proclamation.

Obama has done the churches a favour by stealing their clothing. He invites them to tell their central story in simple terms for a public audience, using the resources of imagery and rhetoric that the Scriptures provide. A simple and gracious vision, of course, also demands simple and gracious action in the public sphere.

Speaking as President, Barack Obama claimed that political and economic life could not return to business as usual. Whether or not his actions substantiate his claim remains to be seen. But he will be judged by how his administration lives by it.

He has thrown out the same challenge to the churches, including the American Catholic bishops, to stake their claim that the day of salvation is at hand, to find words in which to express it, and to be judged by how they embody this claim in the life of the churches.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.

 

Topic tags: andrew hamilton, catholic church, barack obama, personal morality, abortion, embryonic research

 

 

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Existing comments

Profound observations and a message we all need to heed

Judy | 26 February 2009


Andrew, thank you so much for these insights. I think you have put your finger on the essence of the issue.

Obama is speaking from the heart of Christian faith and the power of his rhetoric is both extraordinarily humane and transfixing.In contrast as you point out, the US bishops, sadly, speak from frigid, abstract principles that have little or no impact outside a narrow circle of Catholics.
Paul Collins | 26 February 2009


Thank you for these comments Andrew. I have just finished a book I ran across by accident
'Unchristian' -reporting social research done on 16-29 yr olds' attitude to self-proclaimed Xtns - lots of food for thought- hypocritical is a favourite definition.Also has thoughts for redressing the balance over the next thirty years.
Hilary | 26 February 2009


It is my opinion that the American Catholic Bishops biggest error was in beginning to negotiate with Mr Obama. They sent him a letter outlining how they would co operate with him? The church stands firm in and out of season.

That Mr Obama used religious imagery and language is not reason for kudos, but reason for deep concern. Lies gilded in fool's gold.
Anne Lastman | 26 February 2009


Andrew Hamilton writes:

‘But the deeper challenge that Obama would pose to the Catholic Bishops, and indeed to all church leaders, was adumbrated in his speech after being sworn in.’

Congratulations: This is the first time that I have encountered the word ‘adumbrated’ in print. A straw poll of friends, acquaintances and correspondents also indicates that: ‘you should be congratulated’.

How deliciously obscure. Why? Did you need to demonstrate your Scrabble skills? Surely, summarized would mean more to most readers.

As for the rest of the article… Well! No prize awarded, nothing new here - obscure words not withstanding.





Albert Abercronbie | 26 February 2009


Thanks for this pithy and timely reflection on what President Barak Obama offers us all, Anglicans included, in the way of challenge to a deeper engagement with the Christian story and its application to a public theology and praxis. Thank you also for your previous week's reflection on the Fires and blame.

Cheers and more power to your pen,

Brother Bruce-Paul SSF | 26 February 2009


A beautiful and encouraging piece Andrew. This was John XXXIII's way too - not to think that our cause is advanced, or our aim achieved, by winning narrowly conceived arguments - rather by imitating Jesus's charismatic and wholehearted proclamation of the Kingdom.
Joe Castley | 26 February 2009


I would like to add to Paul's fine comment as well. Yes, Obama is indeed giving the American Catholic Bishops a run for their money. He is doing what too many of them have not been able to do. Inspire! And he does so utilizing biblical/traditional Christian ideals, but couching them in civil terms. In other words, Obama is uniting (in Christian rhetoric) all Americans, in a 'Yes, We Can Gospel' that rivals anything that they muster.

And I, personally find what Obama is doing refreshing and motivating.

The ball is in the Bishops' Court. Can they match up?
Little Bear | 26 February 2009


Personal morality that needs much more proclamation by churches includes honesty and truth; and possibly stopping acquiescence in the anti-life of unprecedented expenditure on armaments - USA is tops, but UK and Australia also high in what we pay per capita.
vy | 26 February 2009


I am always deeply disturbed...outraged is the better word....whenever I hear about food being used as a weapon, physically and militarily.

For bishops... whether it's the Pope or the butcher, the baker or the candlestick maker to even suggest using the spiritual food of the Eucharist as a weapon is simply scandalous.What on earth would Jesus think, let alone say.

As to Obama's speech suggesting that he may be more effective in appealing to deep spiritual themes than church leaders have been...where is the surprise in that?

To use the most recent parliamentary reference on speech (read homily)given there are indeed some who are just 'toxic' bores....

Homilies should be opened up for delivery by both laymen and laywomen.The insight of women especially would blow so many cobwebs away....as the biblical records themselves attest.

On a personal note, as one engaged in HIV/AIDS ministry (www.aids.net.au), I see the Pope is about to canonise Fr Damien for his work among lepers.
Some say he should also be regarded as the patron saint for people living with HIV/AIDS. certainly, HIV/AIDS is the leprosy of our times...but unlike the biblical references, none of these present day lepers will ever be able to present themselves to the priests as 'clean'. There's no cure...but stigma and discrimination remain the dreadful companions.



Brian Haill | 26 February 2009


In my opinion this is a professionally reasoned out article. Congratulations on it. I hope copies fine their way to those narrow thinking bishops in the US and also to Rome
Peter Beeson | 26 February 2009


How is it "negative" and "divisive" to stand up for the dignity of human life at all stages of its development? Obama's human rights record with regard to unborn Americans is appalling. He says he will support a bill which will strike down every pro-life legislation in the USA. He supports the grisly procedure of partial-birth abortion which is absolutely incompatible with justice, compassion and civilisation. He supports withholding health care from infants who have somehow managed to survive abortion. And all this from somebody who himself claims to be from an oppressed minority. Change we can believe in? I don't think so.
Sylvester | 26 February 2009


i cannot add to what has already been said by most commentators above. just a heartfelt thank you, Father Andy, for another important and beautifully written reflective essay.
tony kevin | 26 February 2009


i cannot add to what has already been said by most commentators above. just a heartfelt thank you, Father Andy, for another important and beautifully written reflective essay.
tony kevin | 26 February 2009


i cannot add to what has already been said by most commentators above. just a heartfelt thank you, Father Andy, for another important and beautifully written reflective essay.
tony kevin | 26 February 2009


"Respect for human beings! Surely the most vulnerable point of a baby's journey is when he/she is in the mother's womb!!!
How can you justify his/her destruction?
John Walsh | 26 February 2009


Super, Andy! Thanks.
Simon Smith sj | 27 February 2009


Thank you for this wonderful article. I was saddened to read that some Bishops refused communion to those who thought differently. I'm sure there are some Bishops who were moved and challenged by Obama's words of wisdom. Thanks again.
Breda O'Reilly | 27 February 2009


Re-Andrew's article - it adumbrates concisely Obama's strategic analysis of the US polity and the tactics/policies he was constained to use/develop if he were to be elected.
Re- Obama as President. Machiavelli would consider Obama A Black Prince who has brilliantly exposed the vacuity of his political (and religious) opponents.

In the pursuit of power - and why else engage in politics? - all issues are assessed on the basis of "Which position gives me the greater chance of gaining power?"

Moralistic/ethical purists may not like it but that is the realpolitik of contemporary democratic politics.
Uncle Pat | 27 February 2009


Thanks indeed Andrew. Church leaders need to 'loosen up' to accept that those not of a faith that wishes to impose itself on the whole social system do not appreciate the 'firm stand' that leads to so much misery for so many. I have taken the liberty of quoting a section of your piece in a letter to The Catholic Leader.
Mike Foale | 01 March 2009


"The electoral support for Obama, including by Catholic voters, left the more aggressive bishops exposed. It also marginalised the Catholic Church in its capacity to influence the policies of the new administration, including on issues of personal morality"

As one who has been marginalised by the church, I think it is time that the Bishops et al. left their lofty palaces and joined with and listened to the Church, the people.
Michael Holdcroft | 02 March 2009


I agree - When Obama speaks he touches a chord that is deep within me - a deeply spiritual place that connects me to all and one. That place was in me so long hidden by proscribed rules and regulation that seemed to cloud that simple Christian message that I learnt so well as child. Those simple messages bring hope. I know I draw on the stories often in my counselling room and the particular religious practice never seems to really make a difference. Obama is a gifted story teller who draws on the same simple priniples and messages of hope and respect for each of us in our diversity as Gods creations.
john dallimore | 06 March 2009


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