There have been several efforts to tease out connections between Barack Obama and Catholicism–not surprising given many clear affinities, if clearly not a wholesale overlap. Some have been more adept than others. John O’Malley, the Jesuit historian of the church whose writings I like very much, takes a new tack in an essay at America‘s site, titled “Barack Obama and Vatican II: The president’s persona and the spirit of the council.” O’Malley recognizes the “minefield” he is entering, especially as regards discussions of “the spirit” of the council, which as he notes is anathema to many today. But he persists, and draws a connection between the council’s “style”–a trope of his–and Obama’s style in his election night speech and his Notre Dame address:
The council hoped that this new style of being, which brings with it a new way of proceeding, would lead to cooperation among all persons of good will–Catholics and non-Catholics, Christians and non-Christians, believers and non-believers–on the new, massive, and sometimes terrifying problems that face humanity today. This new way of proceeding in large part constituted “the spirit of the council.” It was one of the big messages the council delivered to the church and to the world at large.
That is why when I heard Obama’s two speeches I was struck by how much he spoke in accord with the spirit of Vatican II. In those two addresses, as well as in his other speeches, he called for civility, for the end of name-calling, and for a willingness to work together to deal with our common problems, including abortion, rather than a stand-off determination to impose one’s principles without reckoning what the cost to the common good might be…
…Classical theorists about rhetoric like Cicero and Quintilian described it as the art of winning consensus, the art of bringing people together for a common cause. It is an art, please note, closely related to ethics, for those same theorists described the truly successful orator as vir bonus dicendi peritus–a good man, skilled in public speaking. It is an art in which Obama excels and which, certainly unwittingly, puts him in touch with the spirit of Vatican II.
I often hear laments that the spirit of Vatican II is dead in the church. Is it not ironic that not a bishop but the President of the United States should today be the most effective spokesperson for that spirit? To judge from the enthusiastic response he received from the graduates at Notre Dame, his message captured their minds and hearts. Maybe through young Catholics like those at Notre Dame who are responding to Obama’s message the spirit of Vatican II will, almost through the back door, reenter the church. The history of the church has, after all, taken stranger turns than that.
A fascinating take by one of our most eminent church historians. A must-read is his latest book, “What Happened at Vatican II.” Well reviewed from left and right, in fact.