Thursday, April 30, 2009

Kenneth Woodward on Notre Dame: a critique

A reader writes:
Kenneth Woodward, formerly of Newsweek, is a reporter I respect. His writing, on all sorts of aspects of Christianity, has been incisive. Decades ago he fearlessly called Mormonism non-Christian in the pages of Newsweek. He also was unafraid to give Opus Dei a critical grilling ('The Furrow' and 'The Way' may be inspiring, but they are hardly great literature), and he supported Ratzinger against Miraville and those aching for a new Marian definition.

I realize some of those items may make him a dubious source to you and many of your readers. And now he steps on my toes...

In "Why Notre Dame Should Welcome Obama" (The Washington Post, March 30, 2009), the undeniably pro-life and undeniably orthodox Woodward writes:
The Internet is smoking with protests from conservative Catholic bloggers and pro-life Web sites. One of them claims to have collected 206,000 signatures opposing the president's appearance. These pressure groups are aghast that "Our Lady's University" would welcome so resolute an opponent of the church's position on abortion. Some alumni, especially Republicans, are threatening to withhold contributions and bequests. The Vatican is receiving e-mail demanding disciplinary action.

Catholicism is not a sect that shuns the world as evil. As a body, the American hierarchy has usually been both principled and open to political engagement. The bishops have congratulated the new president on his victory and pledged to work with him on issues affecting social and economic justice. Do they now find him morally unfit to speak at a Catholic university?

Obama is not coming to Notre Dame to press a pro-choice agenda but to address issues that affect all American citizens, including Catholics. He will be speaking to students who, like other Americans, gave him a majority of their votes. He will receive an honorary degree because it is the custom, not as a blessing on any of his decisions.

American bishops should remember that it was only a few decades ago that a Catholic was considered unfit for the White House. Do they now believe that a sitting president is unfit to address a Catholic university? It's time the bishops gave a clear and principled response.
And I guess I retort: the times have changed. Mr. Woodward might peruse Peter Kreeft's Ecumenical Jihad for a liberal-minded but conservative rejoinder. No longer can we count on clerics being ostensibly Christian. In fact, we have gay-friendly and gay and lesbian bishops. Not to mention Moslem ones! And no longer can we count on Presidents being 'ostensibly' American, as we have come to understand the term, when Presidents and politicians apologize for the nation's colonial past and actively lobby to advocate evil as good. Click on the web: we now have beauty queens vilified for being unwilling to bless sodomy, and child stars lauded for the courage to come out of the closet.

As for our attitude to our neighbors, no, 'the world is not evil.' But 'The World' as an entity and not our neighbors IS evil in Scripture. People in general, sinful people, make up the world. But biblically speaking, power brokers and leaders and schemes make up The World proper, and these things fund and further evil. Big difference. Is the Military-Industrial complex 'evil;'? Is Hollywood or Vegas 'evil'? I can answer those very quickly: YES.

Woodward I think is a child of his time and represents the idealistic side of Vatican II and liberalism in general. A hard-bitten journalist he may be as well, so the dichotomy is a strange one. His book Making Saints pushed along my conversion. It is bracing stuff. Stirring vignettes, matched with black and white photographic plates: Day, Frasatti, Newman... they come alive at his hands. And, here goes: I think some of Woodward's criticism of JPII's theology of the body is actually warranted too, reflecting a sober and scriptural realism ...
As an aside: check out Calvinist Mark Driscoll's ideas on the Song of Solomon as critiqued here. The reporter's comment is great as well: "I’m not convinced that what I’m hearing from the preacher can be found authoritatively in the text." [Is that not the perfect articulation of the Catholic claim against Protestantism in a sentence or what?], and you will get an equally somewhat over-reaching effort to theologize sex to the uttermost. A far cry from some of the less high-blown reflections of last century's married Frank Sheed.
But here, on Notre Dame, Woodward is wrong. And as any good conservative can tell you, when it is about a Journalist weighing in on Education, it would be a miracle if it were at all otherwise!
It's true, as our correspondent suggests, that I do not share his dim view of Opus Dei or the proposed new Marian definition during the pontificate of John Paul II.

As to Woodward, on the one hand, I do agree with our correspondent that Woodward is wrong about Notre Dame. Woodward's reasoning here is skewed by a prevalent liberal secular bias. On the other hand, although I realize Woodward has a track record of generally reliable reporting on religion in the news, his take on the Notre Dame question does not really surprise me. The fact that he has distorted the facts about Catholicism less often than his peers in the secular media never suggested to me that he could be trusted with conveying consistently reliable insights.

Your thoughts?

[Hat tip to J.M.]

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