06/01/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Of Big and Small Tents: Arlen Specter as a Dem, and the Obama Storm at Notre Dame

I have been thinking about Arlen Specter's switch, President Obama's upcoming speech at Notre Dame, and the size and shape of tents.

Arlen Specter's defection from the Republican party was big news this week. Jack Cafferty wondered if the Republican Party is on the "brink of irrelevance." E.J. Dionne saw Specter's shift as "ratifying a decisive shift in American politics."

For his part, Senator Specter said it was about tents. "Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan big tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right. . . I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans."

It is now the Democrats who claim the Big Tent. Such tents will necessarily include people who disagree about this issue or that. But balance makes them stable, and the Democratic tent seems to be fairly well balanced between the moderates and liberals for the moment.

You can't say the same for the Catholic Church these days. The University of Notre Dame appears to be on the verge of excommunication because of its invitation to the President to give the graduation speech and receive an honorary degree. Dozens of bishops and hundreds of thousands of lay catholics have condemned the invitation.

Prominent Catholic Mary Ann Glendon, a former U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican, announced this week that she would refuse Notre Dame's highest honor, which she was to receive at the same ceremony. She called the President "a prominent and uncompromising opponent of the Church's position on issues involving fundamental principles of justice." She said the invitation was a violation of an edict from the Church instructing Catholic institutions not to provide "honors, awards, or platforms" to "those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles."

In Glendon's view, neither the Church's tent nor the Notre Dame dais is big enough for the President.

That's fair, as far as it goes. Religions need not have tents the size of political parties.

But I gotta say: I am confused by the shape of the Catholic tent, and I don't think I am the only one. And I am not an uninterested party in this: I am a professor at Boston College and married to a Notre Dame grad.

Notre Dame is under attack from the Catholic establishment, personified by Professor Glendon, for honoring a President who speaks openly about economic justice, advocates health care for every American, denounces financial and environmental profligacy, and condemns torture. His mortal sin is that he supports abortion rights. In the words of one Catholic blogger, "Either you are Catholic in your beliefs, or you are not. There can be no middle ground."

Compare this with what happened over the last few years at Boston College, just as Catholic and (depending on who you ask) just as prominent as Notre Dame. Three years ago, BC welcomed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as its graduation speaker, giving her an honorary doctor of laws degree. We knew at the time that she was a key player in the Bush war machine, and we have since learned that she was one of the Bush officials who signed off on the use of torture.

Last Spring, Attorney General Michael Mukasey gave the graduation address at our law school, fresh from his defense of waterboarding before Congress. He had the nerve to use the graduation speech to defend the authors of the torture memos.

Some of us protested Rice and Mukasey because we did not want the invitations to sully our institution's admirable reputation for being committed to law and social justice. A number of Jesuits and lay Catholics on the faculty spoke out against both invitations, at risk to their standing within the university. But neither invitation stirred up much of a fight among Catholics outside the university, and there was no outcry from the Catholic mainstream leadership. There was certainly no bishop boycott.

Now that I see the uproar over Obama, the silence from the Catholic establishment over the appearance of Rice and Mukasey at Boston College is confusing. I would have thought illegal war and torture were also "in defiance of [Catholic] fundamental moral principles." And if there truly is "no middle ground" then we should have seen the Catholic establishment condemn Rice and Mukasey as vehemently as they are now denouncing Obama.

But my guess is that most Church leaders think Obama is a worse invitee than either Rice or Mukasey. If that's true, then their tent is shaped so as to include those who authorize and defend torture, but to exclude those who support abortion rights. That seems like an odd-shaped tent, and it may not be stable.