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R. Scott Appleby is embarrassed by the vulgarity of the protests out at Notre Dame. And perhaps he should be”for those protests are pretty vulgar. “People are weary of it,” the Notre Dame history professor told the Washington Post . “I certainly feel this is not the best way to respect life. It makes the cause a circus.”

Appleby is hardly alone. The law school professor Richard Garnett, for example, recently observed , “I think my kids are starting to wonder why I keep telling them to tie their shoes, or check their seatbelts, just as we are passing by the intersection (1/4 mile from my house) where the sign-bearers and truck are!”

Here’s the thing: I’m confident that Scott Appleby is a solid pro-lifer, and I know for a fact that my friend Rick Garnett is a forthright opponent of abortion. So what are they”and several others”doing expressing this sort of reaction?

Yesterday, a group of theologians issued a public statement that compared the protesters at Notre Dame to the Ku Klux Klan. But, then, the signers were the likes of Fr. Tom Reese, Douglas Kmiec, and Charles Curran”people, in other words, so in the tank for a certain brand of politics that their reactions can’t be trusted: Even when they’re right, they’re right for accidental and highly partisan political reasons.

For a particularly blatant example, take a look at Boston College’s Fr. Kenneth Himes , who denounced the protesters by observing, “There is a political game going on here, and part of that is that you demonize the people who disagree with you, you question their integrity, you challenge their character, and you brand these people as moral poison.” This was the same Fr. Himes (as James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal noted) who demanded in 2006 that Boston College rescind its offer of an honorary degree for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice: “On the levels of both moral principle and practical moral judgment,” Himes wrote. “Secretary Rice’s approach to international affairs is in fundamental conflict with Boston College’s commitment to the values of the Catholic and Jesuit traditions and is inconsistent with the humanistic values that inspire the university’s work.” Moral poison, it turns out, is in the eye of the beholder.

Back in 2001, when George W. Bush was receiving an honorary degree from Notre Dame, the English professor Valerie Sayers led protesters in a chant of “the Catholic vote is not for sale.” The Bush protest appears to have been much smaller than the Obama protest is now. Still, there’s a reasonable argument to be made that if you were on campus at the time”if you were, say, a Notre Dame professor who is now a strong supporter of President Obama”and you didn’t denounce Sayers for her chants when one president of the United States came to campus, then you have no standing to object to the protests now when another president is coming to campus.

But all that is just politics: These are people who object to attacks when it’s their politicians who are suffering, and ignore or promote attacks when it’s the other side’s politicians who are getting hit. And is anyone naive enough to be shocked? When operating in a purely partisan political context, everybody does the same”and they are right to do so, for that’s what purely partisan politics entails. If, for example, Mitt Romney’s campaign manager weren’t trying to spin everything that comes along in Mitt Romney’s direction, then he wouldn’t be doing his job.

What’s important to understand, however, is that the protests at Notre Dame aren’t simply partisan politics, and (as Amy Welborn sharply noted) the nation’s reporters and editorialists have consistently failed when they attempt to force all this down into a political frame.

Which brings us back to the embarrassment that Appleby and Garnett have felt. The standard political”and sometimes openly anti-Catholic”reading is that it all derives from the bishops, who have ordered or encouraged the susceptible Catholic faithful to protest. The truth is, in fact, the reverse: The bishops didn’t want this fight. The battle over the Catholicism of America’s Catholic colleges was coming, one way or another, but no bishop (or serious commentator, for that matter) hoped it would break into public view over a visit to Notre Dame by the president of the United States, who is owed respect simply for the office he holds.

Nonetheless, the bishops were forced into the fight”and they were forced into it from below. The incompetence and petulance of Notre Dame’s president, Fr. John I. Jenkins, didn’t help”as I observed in the pages of First Things this month, he had to work hard to turn “an unhappy situation into a disastrous one.” But the impetus for criticizing Notre Dame came at the bishops rather than from the bishops.

Think of some of the consequences of this fact. Of course, the protests are going to embarrass elite university professors, even when those professors are strongly pro-life and disapprove of Notre Dame’s awarding of an honorary degree to a man who, by rescinding the Mexico City Policy, now has American tax dollars funding abortions in foreign countries. The protests began among the ordinary people and they are couched in the vulgate language of ordinary people: Shocking! Loud! Graphic! ”how could the sophisticated not find them vulgar?

For that matter, the pattern of the Notre Dame protests ought forever to end the picture of Catholicism in the United States as some sort of top-down structure, antithetical to the American way. The bishops were followers, not leaders, in all this, and once they began to criticize Notre Dame, they gained very few new followers. The Pew poll and the Rasmussen poll differ in interesting ways, but, regardless, both show that the criticisms by (at this point) over seventy bishops have not provoked any significant change among those Catholics who previously said they supported Obama’s visit.

Certainly the bishops have caused little change of heart among the administrators and faculty at Notre Dame. For many years in American Catholicism (particularly on the more left-leaning, spirit-of-Vatican-II side), the claim was made that the sense of the faithful was a limit on the bishops’ power: We needed freedom from the bishops so the people could be more authentically Catholic. Here is one more interesting consequence of the pattern by which the protests at Notre Dame emerged: It turns out that the claim to be speaking in the name of the ordinary, vulgar people was just a tactic in a long struggle to break from the hierarchy; what many at the Catholic colleges seem to want, instead, is to constitute themselves as a new magisterium and hierarchy: The protesters and bishops should shut up, because we know better what is authentic Catholic doctrine.

Maybe that’s why, if we shed the political view, the whole mess at Notre Dame reveals itself as a fight over Catholic culture. The protesters are certainly a minority among self-identified Catholics, but they are also the wire through which the most current is flowing in American Catholicism today. “Opposition to abortion doesn’t stand at the center of Catholic theology. It doesn’t even stand at the center of Catholic faith,” I noted in the Weekly Standard . Still, at the current moment, “Opposition to abortion is the signpost at the intersection of Catholicism and American public life.”

Should it be so? Catholic theology would be peculiar if it had at its root a negation rather than an affirmation. Catholic faith would be unreal if at its deepest heart lay opposition to abortion rather than embrace of Jesus Christ. You don’t have to travel far in theology or faith to arrive at knowledge of the absolute evil of abortion, but neither theology nor faith properly begin there.

Still, Catholic culture”and the Catholic intersection with the princes and powers of earth”must always be adversarial in some ways. We have in this world no perfect home, and if right now the adversarial element is expressing itself most forcefully in opposition to abortion, then the culture of the faithful is manifesting something that deserves respect”something that deserves agreement.

To this kind of claim, my friend, the conservative Georgetown professor Patrick Deneen, recently responded , “The singular focus upon abortion as the issue over which conservative Catholics will brook no divergence and around which we are called to rally reveals, to my mind, not evidence of robust Catholic culture as much as its absence.”

That’s right”and yet, it isn’t. The key word here is robust . I’ve been fascinated recently by the odd and interesting ways in which, it appears to me, an attempt is being made to use homeschooling as a replacement for the devices that used to transmit Catholic culture, among those most hungry for the existence of such a culture. What will come of that is hard to say. Still, for the moment, at least, opposition to abortion remains the clear marker of the public presence of what Catholic culture exists. And as I wrote in “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano” :

For the development of a new Catholicism, this doesn’t look the most-promising start. Rich local cultures may produce great works, but few people in the United States have that kind of cultural wealth anymore. Certainly not many Catholics. The number of Americans who grew up in a profoundly Catholic setting is smaller than it ever has been before”which creates a problem for a new culture. If Catholicism is something elected rather than received, can Catholics achieve what earlier cultures did? Their children, perhaps, will come from a thick-enough world that they can write the kind of strong Catholic novels, make the kind of strong Catholic art, prior ages knew. But in the meantime, a rebellion against rebellion doesn’t escape the problems of rebellion, and a chosen tradition is never quite the same as an inherited one.

A robust Catholic culture? No, not yet. Not by a long shot. But the people who are upset by Notre Dame’s honoring of a strong supporter of legalized abortion”they’re serious, and they’re on the ground, and they’re deeply moved by a genuinely Catholic principle, and they’re what we have. Besides, they’re right.

Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things .

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