Reagan’s theme instantly endeared to him to American Catholics: “I think our detractors are looking in the wrong places if they want to see the goodness and love of life of this generation, the commitment to decency and a better future, let them come here to Notre Dame.”
Politicians must go to Notre Dame as well, if they want to win Catholic hearts. The University of the Fighting Irish has become the most visible symbol of American Catholicism. Not St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City or the Basilica in Washington, D.C., but the Golden Dome in South Bend.
Bush did not visit Notre Dame during the presidential campaign. Senator Lieberman, the Democratic Party Vice Presidential candidate, however, made a well-publicized speech to a smallish crowd of 800-900. The Lieberman visit did not excite the students like it did the media perhaps because Notre Dame students are overwhelmingly Republican as evidenced by campus straw polls.
Bush will be warmly received in South Bend, though a protest against the McVeigh execution is being planned. His address will surely emphasize the values of compassionate conservatism that won him a close election with the help of a huge increase (10%) in Catholic support compared to the 1996 Dole campaign.
It’s doubtful that Bush will argue that compassionate conservatism is representative of Catholic social teaching since that would only invite public rebuttal.
Bush’s success with Catholics, thus far, has started some grumbling. The National Catholic Reporter is predicting that Bush’s attention to Catholics will backfire when the economy starts to tank. It also said the Notre Dame invitation to President Bush “demeans Notre Dame” and represents a “drift away from its Catholic mission.” Commonweal attacks the Bush budget on the grounds that it hurts the poor and helps the rich.
This commencement speech offers Bush the opportunity to answer that criticism, to explain the “tough love” aspect of compassionate conservatism: Government programs must be evaluated by actual results, not by stated intentions. Bush is certainly willing to spend money on social programs; he has already ruffled some conservative feathers by his willingness to spend more money on programs that are demonstrably successful.
More importantly, Bush is likely to express his confidence in the track record of religiously affiliated social services and the faith-inspired effort that fuels them. Bush may draw attention to the way Notre Dame itself honors those who give their lives to service. Prior to every graduation there is a special ceremony honoring those who enter the military, teaching, and apostolic work.
Indeed, by focusing on the quality of effort and outcome, rather than raw dollar amounts, Bush may persuade more Catholics of his compassionate conservatism. But no matter what he says or does, he’ll always face the uphill battle of convincing many Catholics who are lifelong Democrats that Republicans really do care about the most needy among us.
Reagan convinced Catholics that he recognized their heart; Bush must convince Catholics of his own.