This coming week, Bishop Thomas Wenski of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orlando, Fla., will take the unusual step of celebrating a Mass of Reparation, to make amends for sins against God.
The motivation: to provide an outlet for Catholics upset with what Wenski calls the University of Notre Dame's "clueless" decision to invite President Barack Obama to speak at its commencement and receive an honorary doctorate May 17.
The nation's flagship Catholic university's honoring of a politician whose abortion rights record clashes with a fundamental church teaching has triggered a reaction among the nation's Catholic bishops that is remarkable in scope and tone, church observers say.
At least 55 bishops have publicly denounced or questioned Notre Dame in recent weeks, employing an arsenal of terms ranging from "travesty" and "debacle" to "extreme embarrassment."
Paramount issue of activism
The bishops' response is part of a decades-long march to make abortion the paramount issue for their activism, a marker of the kind of bishops Rome has sent to the U.S. and the latest front in a struggle over Catholic identity that has exposed rifts between hierarchy and flock.
Bishops who have spoken out so far account for 20 percent of the roughly 265 active U.S. bishops — a minority, but more than double the number who suggested five years ago that then-Democratic presidential hopeful and Catholic John Kerry should either be refused Communion or refrain from it because of his abortion stance.
"I think they do believe the chips are down," said James Hitchock, a history professor at St. Louis University. "The election has changed the whole landscape. Now we have a strongly pro-abortion administration in power, and he's in a position to achieve what we've been trying to stave off now for years."
As for Wenski, he issued a statement and then came up with the Mass idea after angry Notre Dame graduates from central Florida asked for guidance about how to respond, he said in an interview.
"I figured, 'I'm a bishop — I'm not going to tell them to attack Notre Dame with a pitchfork,'" said Wenski, who is not among the nation's more confrontational bishops. "I'm going to tell them to go pray."
Wenski said he will not "preach a tirade against Notre Dame" during the Monday night Mass at Orlando's Cathedral of St. James. What must be atoned for, Wenski said, is complacency among U.S. Catholics about the legal killing of unborn children, which contributed to the climate that allowed Notre Dame to think it was all right to honor Obama.
Protests began quickly
Almost immediately after Notre Dame invited Obama and he accepted, anti-abortion and conservative Catholic groups launched protests, and bishops began either making statements or releasing letters written to the university president, the Rev. John Jenkins.
Former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican Mary Ann Glendon turned down a prestigious Notre Dame medal last week because she was to have shared the stage with Obama.
The university has emphasized that Obama will be honored as an inspiring leader who broke a historic racial barrier — not for his positions on abortion or embryonic stem cell research.
U.S. bishops have long been at the forefront of opposing legal abortion, but it's never been their sole focus. During the 1980s, the bishops issued pastoral letters on nuclear weapons, poverty and the economy, influenced by the late Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin's concept of a "consistent ethic of life."
Many Catholic bishops, however, worried that abortion was getting shortchanged. Those who argue abortion trumps everything say that other issues are irrelevant without the beginning of life and that things like capital punishment and war are sometimes justified.
Bishops hammered that home in November 2007 with a statement on faithful citizenship that said: "The direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life is always wrong and is not just one issue among many."
Timothy Barnes, a Colgate University political scientist, said the Notre Dame clash gives bishops a chance to promote two of their top priorities: re-emphasizing abortion at a time when the issue is waning, and stressing the Catholic character of Catholic universities.
"If you put yourself in their shoes and see Notre Dame honoring a new president, a popular president, who seems to be a new kind of political figure trying to emphasize new issues and post-partisan politics, that would be something they would want to respond to pretty aggressively," he said. "The old divisions of the old politics, in certain sectors, is focused on abortion."
Obama backed by most Catholics
Polls show Catholics giving high job approval ratings to Obama, and Catholic attitudes about abortion and stem-cell research largely mirror the public's.
"I think the bishops who believe abortion is the ultimate litmus test look at the polls and realize Catholics are not listening to them," said the Rev. Mark Massa, co-director of the Curran Center for American Catholic Studies at Fordham University. "They're playing a very dangerous game because they do not have the moral authority they had before the sex abuse crisis, and they're trying to find a toehold and get heard."
So far, the Notre Dame saga doesn't seem to be resonating. Only about half of Catholics surveyed by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life from April 23 to 27 had heard about the controversy.
About half of U.S. Catholics supported Notre Dame, 28 percent said the school was wrong and 22 percent had no opinion, the poll found. People who attend Mass frequently were more likely to oppose the university's stance, and also gave Obama lower job performance marks.
R. Scott Appleby, a Notre Dame history professor, said the bishops' outspokenness points to a new litmus test — not on whether abortion should be legal but over how to fight it.
"The litmus test is on 'How do we best change the policies and work for a culture of life?" Appleby said. "Many Catholics want to be open to at least discuss with the bishops the best way to move forward on our common goal. But the bishops have imposed this particular approach and have not felt it necessary to consult the faithful fully on that."
Several bishops have taken a harder line on perceived dissent. To them, Notre Dame is defying a 2004 bishops' statement on politics that says: "The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions."
Legacy of Pope John Paul II
The bishops' response to Notre Dame also is part of the legacy of the man who appointed so many of them, said the Rev. Tom Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. Pope John Paul II sought loyal servants who "were willing to take on the world — willing to argue and debate and confront people," Reese said.
Wenski, the Orlando bishop, said bishops are not angry at Obama in this case, but the university leadership. Yet their disapproval "is also an expression of our frustration" with Obama administration decisions on funding for overseas groups that perform abortions, expanded embryonic stem cell research and "conscience clause" protections for health workers, he said.
On being a voice on abortion, Wenski said: "We've been doing this pretty consistently. Perhaps in the past, some bishops have been a little bit too indulgent of what we tolerate in some of the dissent."
Wenski also has spoken out about banning torture and finding a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants — issues he said can be common causes for bishops and the White House.
"Bishops are like most other people," he said. "We really don't want to look for conflicts or fights. "But this has been egregious enough that we have to be clear. We're standing on principle, not looking for a battle."