I just added my name to an online petition that supports Fr. John Jenkins and Notre Dame University for inviting President Obama to speak at the 2009 commencement. The petition is sponsored by Notre Dame Alums in Support of Father Jenkins, Faithful America and Catholics United.

Manya Brachear, religion reporter of the Chicago Tribune perfectly summed up the controversy, “Some Fighting Irish are fighting mad about the prospect of an American president addressing graduates at the spring commencement. Should Roman Catholic colleges and universities roll out the red carpet for a sitting president if he doesn’t agree with the church’s stance regarding abortion?”

The petition argues that the invitation of the pro-choice President as a commencement speaker provides an opportunity for dialogue: “For decades, presidents of both political parties have been invited to Notre Dame for this occasion to engage in rigorous discourse about the most pressing issues of our day. Presidents have addressed such essential issues as international affairs, peace building, poverty, and human rights. Through this invitation, Fr. Jenkins is honoring the best of our nation’s democratic and religious values.”

Supporters of Obama as commencement speaker also maintain that this invitation honors the American cornerstone value of free speech.

Once again we have an example of dissent within the Roman Catholic Church.

When dissent collides with hierarchy who wins?

It is one thing to see this discussion as a pro-choice, pro-life dichotomy. But that is too easy.

As a Protestant minister standing outside the swirling Catholic controversy, I find myself seduced by a different question.

Who has the right to decide what is right or wrong? Where is the moral locus of authority?

Okay, I admit it. I come out of the free church tradition that affirms not hierarchal Papal authority but the authority of the soul—or, as we call it, “soul liberty.”

In his Epistle to the Galatians, Paul writes, “For freedom, Christ has set you free. Do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.”

A slave is someone who is completely dependent upon somebody else for their very existence. One consequence of this dependency is that the slave loses his or her capacity to choose. Slaves must do as they are told or lose their source of livelihood.

Spiritually speaking, if we depend on anything in the external world to give us inner security, it can be argued that we have submitted to the yoke of slavery. It is easier to become a slave to somebody else’s version of the truth than to search for it within ourselves.

The deeper moral question is always, who has the authority to decide?

“Truth is my authority, not some authority my truth,” said Anne Hutchinson, a seventeenth century American pioneer of religious freedom. She was then declared an “American Jezebel who had gone awhoring from God” and brought to trial. She was found guilty of heresy in 1637. Her accusers said her truth was false and theirs was true.

What is the truth and who has the authority to decide?

This latest controversy in the Catholic church reminds us that what stirs the hornet’s nest of authority most, is the suggestion that truth is something to be engaged rather than blindly accepted.

This of course implies that in matters of moral ambiguity the ultimate moral authority can be summed up in six words–let your conscience be your guide.

The power of this inner authority is what we are seeing in the Rev. John Jenkins and Notre Dame.

Let us give thanks.