CNN's Whitfield on Notre Dame Scandal: Have Catholics 'Evolved' on the Moral Issues?

Minutes after she praised President Obama for his “courageous” decision to accept the invitation to speak at Notre Dame, CNN anchor Fredricka Whitfield played the role of liberal advocate for the president’s commencement address, grilling one Catholic guest who questioned the university’s decision, while going easy on her other guest who was happy to see Obama speak there. Just as MSNBC’s Norah O’Donnell had done on May 14, Whitfield equivocated between the issues of abortion and the death penalty, along with war, in her question to Raymond Arroyo of the Catholic television network EWTN: “So does the death penalty fall into that and also wars...does that fall into that as well?”

Later, when Arroyo brought up how the Catholic teaching on abortion wouldn’t change, even if most of the Notre Dame graduates agreed with the decision to bring the president to campus, the CNN anchor replied, “Well, might it suggest something else, that perhaps the Catholic majority has evolved in its opinion of certain things....Perhaps, it means that there’s a greater understanding in some of the areas that you say...once upon a time there wasn’t.” [Due to the large amount of transcript, the entire text of both segments of the two segments can be read here. Audio clips from both segments are available here.]

Twenty-one minutes into the 2 pm Eastern hour, as President Obama was getting ready to receive the honorary law degree at Notre Dame, Whitfield brought on Arroyo and the Reverend James Martin, a Jesuit priest with the generally-liberal Catholic publication American magazine, during two points in the lead up to Obama’s address for a discussion of the whole controversy. After playing up the “rousing applause as the president walked in,” the anchor asked Arroyo what his impression was so far. When the EWTN news director answered that the controversy was largely over the awarding of the honorary law degree, Whitfield shot back, “But the university -- in fact, the president -- Reverend Jenkins said every president that’s been invited to -- to deliver the commencement speech always gets an honorary degree. This would be quite the slap or an aside if they were to invite the president....and not granted an honorary degree.”

Arroyo invoked the 2004 decision of the Catholic bishops in the U.S. which advised Catholic institutions to “not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles, and you shouldn’t give them honors and medals because that would be seen as supporting their policies.” When the CNN anchor replied with her death penalty/war question, Arroyo continued that “abortion...has been identified by both the Vatican and the bishops of the United States as a foundational issue. One can’t get to poverty or climate change or immigration if that person hasn’t been allowed to live.”

Whitfield then turned to Rev. Martin and asked if he agreed with Arroyo’s outline. The priest, who is with a religious order in the Catholic Church that is notoriously full of leftists and dissenters from Church teaching, did not stray from his liberal talking points the entire time: “I think first of all, if anyone deserves a degree in law, it’s this constitutional law scholar....But also, I think the pro-life world is a lot broader than simply abortion. I don’t think you can just sweep the death penalty, torture -- things like that under the carpet....I think, unfortunately, for a lot of people in the pro-life movement, life begins at conception, but seems to end there.”

Near the end of the first segment of their discussion, Whitfield brought up how 54% of Catholic supported President Obama during the last election: “Fifty-four perecent of Catholics who were polled in America on Election Day actually voted for this president....Hasn’t it already been made clear that many Catholics who may have been struggling with the issue, whether abortion or stem cell research -- they’ve already gotten past that part?” Arroyo countered with the recent Gallup poll that found that “more Americans are pro-life -- 51 percent -- than opposed to life or supportive of abortion rights. So what we’re seeing, I think, is a sea change. I almost look at this as the Obama effect. As these policies get wheeled out -- as people, particularly Catholics, become more cognizant of the policy choices being made, you see a shift.”

Both Whitfield and Reverend Martin seemed to ignored the poll results presented by Arroyo:

WHITFIELD: Well, Mr. Arroyo, I’m wondering, are you concerned that the view that you are conveying now really is in -- is a minority view if you look at, according to the polling that the Observer newspaper on campus did -- 70% of this mostly Catholic student body actually said we do embrace -- we do welcome this president.

ARROYO: No doubt.

WHITFIELD: And that the heated protest that’s taking place involving outside groups, that is not representative of the university campus --

ARROYO: Absolutely.

WHITFIELD: So is there not a mixed message being sent here?

ARROYO: Well, no one’s saying that -- that there’s a groundswell of opposition on campus. The groundswell has come from outside of campus, from the Catholic bishops, from faithful people looking in. It is -- Notre Dame is symbolic of Catholic identity in many ways, and by conferring this honor at this moment in history, when these issues, particularly issues of life, are moving to the consciousness again of Catholics, this is becoming sort of a rallying point. I think it’s a moment --

WHITFIELD: Well, Reverend Martin, I wonder, is this groundswell representative of most practicing Catholics, in your view?

MARTIN: Well, I don’t see it as a groundswell. I mean, you heard the deafening applause when we he walked in. You saw the polls of who voted for Obama in the last election. I think Catholics also realize that there are many different ways of tackling the problem of abortion. I mean, I’m pro-life, but I also think that -- sort of fundamental economic policies, trying to help the poor -- those kinds of things work against abortion as well, which is something that President Obama has talked about. So, you know, we can differ on tactics basically, but I -- I don’t think anyone is really pro-abortion. So I think what you are seeing, in terms of Notre Dame, if you do see it as an emblem of Catholic identity, is the support that he has among Catholics, who see this as more than simply a one-issue Church.
Ten minutes later, during the second segment of their discussion before the president’s commencement address, the CNN anchor again asked Rev. Martin for his take. The Jesuit couldn’t wait to sing the chief executive’s praises: “Well, I think it’s terrific that he’s coming to Notre Dame, and I think it’s terrific that, you know, he’s going to mix it up with the graduates, as well as the faculty and the larger world on this question of abortion....I think, you know, one of the things that is getting lost is I think the Catholic Church also needs to treat people with dignity and grace themselves. And I think to welcome the president -- this guy with, you know, a tremendous record -- I think it’s entirely appropriate, and I think if anyone has a problem with honoring him, I think they just need to look at his record.”

Whitfield then brought up with Arroyo how former ambassador to the Vatican and Harvard professor Mary Ann Glendon had turned down Notre Dame’s highest honor due to the invitation to the president. After some confusion on the part of the CNN anchor, the EWTN director finally explained that Glendon declined the award because she thought “this event should be about the graduates themselves, not about some fake dialogue -- not about some, you know, pro-life as opposed to pro-choice going at war with each other, you know, in some sort of dialogue. That’s not what’s happening here.” She followed up by asking, “Do you like or agree with what Reverend Jenkins says, that, in part, the reason why they’re honoring the president is because he was willing to engage with those who disagree with him?”

Arroyo answered, in part, “I mean, in all of these recent decisions, whether it’s the conscience clause, the funding of abortion, I didn’t see anybody consulting religious voices....So I don’t quite know what they’re talking about. But again, what we’re seeing is the power of the president’s personality -- his rock star status being brought to bear. But if 98% of Notre Dame graduates loved and embraced this choice, it still would avoid the real question, which isn’t President Obama. The question is, should this university be honoring someone who violates the very fundamental moral values of the Catholic Church?”

This answer brought out the CNN anchor’s use of the “evolved” term:
WHITFIELD: Well, might it suggest something else, that perhaps the Catholic majority has evolved in its opinion of certain things. Some of these things that you’ve outlined --

ARROYO: No, no, no, because this -- no, no, this --  there’s no --

WHITFIELD: Perhaps, it means that there’s a greater understanding in some of the areas that you say --

ARROYO: There’s no --

WHITFIELD: Once upon a time there wasn’t.

ARROYO: Yeah, there couldn’t be because there’s been no indication from the hierarchy or any official teaching that there’s been ‘evolution.’ I don’t know what ‘evolution’ from life means. I mean, if one throws life away, then torture, death penalty, war, everything is open game....It is one -- all of these issues hang together. It is one consistent ethic of life. But one can’t then say abortion can be put aside. No, no, no. It is primordial. It is -- it is fundamental, and the bishops and the popes have taught this for centuries. This is nothing new.”

WHITFIELD: So then as senator, he said I am not voting for war. Why would that not supercede, or at least have some equal footing with his position on a woman’s right to choose?

ARROYO: A great question -- because war, under some circumstances, can be just. War -- obviously, in World War II, when we were liberating people in death camps -- that was a just war, okay? But abortion, in all instances, is always intrinsically evil in the minds -- in the mind of the Church. So one can’t play this shell game. You know, as I said earlier, this isn’t a game of ‘go fish’ and find one teaching you agree with -- oh, I agree with immigration, but I’m not going to let people exercise their conscience in hospitals --
Matthew Balan
Matthew Balan
Matthew Balan is a news analyst at Media Research Center