A Half-Century Drift From The Church


For more than a half century, Notre Dame has patiently paved the way for social change, leading the way in…

We reproduce below with permission an article by Bill Dempsey that appeared recently in  First Things. Bill writes about the debt owed by Catholic pro-choice politicians like Sen. Kaine and Vice President Biden to Notre Dame and the relationship of this phenomenon to Father Jenkins’s repeated public clashses with Notre Dame’s bishops and, ultimately, to the sharp decline in Catholic representation on the faculty.

To read the article on First Things, click here.

First-Things-MagTim Kaine is a Harvard Law graduate, but he and other pro-choice Catholic politicians owe much to Notre Dame. As Matthew Franck has observed in First Things, Mario Cuomo’s 1984 “personally opposed but won’t impose” speech at the university was a “watershed moment” for pro-choice apologists. Notre Dame’s gift to Cuomo of a high-visibility platform and an enthusiastic audience seemed to stamp “nihil obstat” on his argument. (Despite, as Dr. Franck explained, the “crashing ineptitude” of Cuomo’s rationale.)

Then a couple of months ago, just in time for Senator Kaine’s campaign on a ticket with the most radical pro-abortion platform in history, Notre Dame gave a boost to the Cuomo model of dissenting-but-faithful Catholic politician. At its Commencement, the University awarded the Laetare Medal, which it describes as “The Most Prestigious Award Given to American Catholics,” to Vice President Joe Biden and Speaker John Boehner. The award is given for “outstanding service to Church and society.”

Like Senator Kaine, Biden is resolutely pro-choice; and like Kaine, Biden supports same-sex marriage. Biden endorses the Obamacare contraception mandate’s incursion on religious liberty, and Kaine has just co-sponsored a bill aimed at crushing with heavy fines the consciences of pharmacists who don’t want to sell contraceptives.

Notre Dame honored Biden despite the strong opposition of its bishop, the Most Rev. Kevin C. Rhoades. The award, Bishop Rhoades said, would scandalize the faithful—a blindingly obvious and important concern at a school charged with the moral formation of young Catholics. If Notre Dame thinks that a person with Biden’s extensive record of major dissent deserves this extraordinary tribute, then cafeteria Catholicism ought to do for everyone else.

Further, Bishop Rhoades deplored this breach in the relationship that should obtain between a Catholic university and its bishop. He could have noted that this was a third strike for Notre Dame’s president, the Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C.

Father Jenkins began his presidency in 2006 with a very public and sharp dispute with Bishop John M. D’Arcy over a student production of The Vagina Monologues, a graphic paean to lesbian sex. Next came Bishop D’Arcy’s denunciation of the honoring of President Obama, who is the Church’s most formidable adversary on abortion and religious liberty. Eighty-two cardinals, archbishops, and bishops concurred in Bishop D’Arcy’s reproach. When has anything like that ever happened at a Catholic university?

Of these three episodes, the Biden affair is especially telling. There were (flimsy) faculty assertions of academic freedom respecting The Vagina Monologues, and there was a (sort of) tradition of honoring presidents. But in the Biden matter, Father Jenkins rejected the faculty’s recommendations; and surely he knew that his action would divide alumni, cast a pall over the commencement, and tarnish Notre Dame’s reputation in the pro-life community.

And for what? To convert the Laetare Medal into a civics award to politicians whom no one would call distinguished but who have generally (though not always) been affable with opponents and generally (though not always) inclined toward compromise.

How to explain this repeated stiff-arming of Notre Dame’s bishops by the priest-president of a school whose robust Catholicism has been celebrated over decades in films and books and the cheers of legions of fans of the Fighting Irish?

The answer lies in the increasingly muscular application of another “watershed” declaration with Notre Dame origins, the 1967 Land O’Lakes Statement. This declaration of independence by representatives of twenty-six leading Catholic universities was adopted at a meeting presided over by Father Ted Hesburgh, the storied Notre Dame president, and held at the Holy Cross Land O’Lakes Wisconsin retreat.

In its opening paragraph, the signatories proclaimed:

To perform its teaching and research functions effectively the Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.

The statement sounded this self-sufficiency theme throughout, as Father James T. Burtchaell, C.S.C., a former provost of Notre Dame, explained in his study of the secularization of Catholic universities, The Dying of the Light. “From the Church,” he wrote, “the university asks only to be left alone.”

The tension between Land O’Lakes and Saint John Paul II’s charter for Catholic universities, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, is palpable. In the former, the Church is held at arm’s length. In the latter, university and Church are joined in a sustaining, if non-juridical, relationship:

Every Catholic University, without ceasing to be a University, has a relationship to the Church that is essential to its institutional identity. One consequence … is a recognition of and adherence to the teaching authority of the Church in matters of faith and morals.

Bishops are the primary link between Church and school. They “should be seen, not as external agents, but as participants in the life of the Catholic University.” They “have a particular responsibility to promote and assist in the preservation and strengthening of their Catholic identity.” To this end, there should be “close personal and pastoral relationships between University and Church authorities, characterized by mutual trust, close and consistent cooperation and continuing dialogue.”

But at Notre Dame, Land O’Lakes has had the upper hand. In an article in America, Bishop D’Arcy disclosed that Father Jenkins “chose not to dialogue with his bishop on these two matters [The Vagina Monologues and Obama affair], both pastoral and both with serious ramifications for the care of souls, which is the core responsibility of the local bishop.”

Now, why would Father Jenkins and others in authority (especially his Provincial) find this rupture between Church and university acceptable, if not indeed desirable as a badge of independence? One reason, surely, is that most of the faculty approve. Father Jenkins reportedly received a standing ovation at his post-Obama faculty dinner for facing down the eighty-three protesting bishops.

The problem—it is life-threatening—is that Notre Dame does not comply with another provision of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the injunction that a majority of the faculty be Catholic. In their Application of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the bishops declared that each Catholic university should have a majority of the faculty “committed to the witness of the faith.”

This provision is the key to Catholic identity, as Dr. John Garvey, the able president of Catholic University, explained in a recent address“If the university follows it, the university will be Catholic. If it doesn’t, it won’t.”

The Notre Dame faculty doesn’t come close to having a majority “committed to the witness of the faith.” Nominal Catholic faculty representation has plummeted from 85 percent in the 1970s to just over 50 percent today. Nominal Catholic faculty are simply those who check the “Catholic” box when hired. Something less than a majority are “Catholics committed to the witness of the faith,” to put it mildly.

As the highly respected Dr. Walter Nicgorski observed in an address to Sycamore Trust, an unofficial alumni organization concerned about the school’s weakening Catholic identity:

There is the widely shared recognition that a large number of those who list themselves as Catholic are not inclined to be involved in any concerns about the religious character of this university.

As a result, he continued, “[A] young person going through Notre Dame might not encounter a practicing Catholic informed and engaged by the Catholic intellectual tradition.” Another long-time professor, Dr. Alfred Freddoso, put it succinctly: Notre Dame is “something like a public school in a Catholic neighborhood.”

Consider what this means for Catholic higher education. Notre Dame is still in many ways a very Catholic place. It probably has a higher proportion of dedicated Catholic faculty and Catholic students than any other major Catholic university, except perhaps Catholic University. It has vibrant Catholic student organizations and faculty institutes. A student who chooses professors carefully can still receive a fine Catholic education. There are chapels in the residence halls, crucifixes in the classrooms, and many opportunities for spiritual growth. That is the Catholic “neighborbood.”

With all of this, if Notre Dame doesn’t make it as an authentically Catholic school, what are the chances for the many more secularized Catholic schools? Father Wilson Miscamble, C.S.C., award-winning Notre Dame historian and author of For Notre Dame: Battling for the Heart and Soul of a Catholic University, has characterized the battle as a “debate between these two documents,” Land O’Lakes and Ex Corde Ecclesiae. “How this contest gets worked out in practice,” he declared, “will determine the future of Notre Dame.”

Land O’Lakes is ahead, but the game isn’t over.


William Dempsey, a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and the Yale School of Law, served as chief law clerk for Chief Justice Earl Warren. He has worked as an attorney in Washington, D.C., as chief labor negotiator for the railroad industry, as president of the American Association of Railroads, and now as president of Sycamore Trust.


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18 Responses to “A Half-Century Drift From The Church”

  1. charles w. watson August 27, 2016 at 7:30 am

    I think a public excommunication of Jenkins along with the rest such as Biden and Kaine would do “wonders”
    in moving others to the tenants of the faith.Controversy would ensue but so be it!

  2. One cannot be in communion with, and autonomous from Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, simultaneously.

    Being in communion is not a matter of degree; if you are not with Christ, you are against Christ.

    God, The Ordered Communion of Perfect Complementary Love, Is The Author of Love, of Life, and of Marriage.

  3. It seems to me that this whole thing started with Ted Hesburgh, back when I was a freshman or sophmore with no idea of his secret meetings. Does the fact that he is such a legendary giant in the world of academia mitagate what he did? Has his stature rendered the bishops involved incapable of standing up and officially censuring Hesburgh and Jenkins. This is analogous to Hillary being let off the hook by the FBI and DOJ because of who she is. Pure and simple, I see it as blatant COWARDICE.

    Some erudite intellectual…..someone like Charles Kraut… needs to explain in a written statement, in no uncertain terms exactly why what Hesburgh did, and what Jenkins is doing is wrong….. or just drop it if they can’t. Is there something that is flat out wrong (sinful) here…..or is this just a case of conflicting opinions. You say ‘tomaato’, I say ‘tomato’. It seems to me what Jenkins is doing is despicable. And the way to handle him IS TO WITHHOLD DOLLARS …… even if your whole family went there. I hav’t given a dime to ND ….. but I will contribute to Sycamore, and I have contributed to Mike McCoy ministries, and to my high school …../ archbishop Stepinac. These entities have held true to their founding principles.
    Notre Dame has not. They have given that up so that they might join what they perceive to be a prestigious group of ‘elite’ secular universities. Since when does one have to be secular’ to be elite?
    Notre Dame has lost it’s essential soul, and just like the sheeple in America who wallow in their complacency….and do nothing, to many alum either just don’t care, or are ignorant of this divorce between Notre Dame and the church upon whose sacred mission it was founded.-RD ’67

  4. Joe Biden an outstanding CATHOLIC? Fr Jenkins better have his vision checked perfect example of the blind leading the blind. Put another way Judas got 30 pieces of silver Fr Jenkins only got poor Joe Biden.

  5. matthew j peters August 15, 2016 at 9:24 am

    M James Peters ’60 This superb article almost says it all. Please read on. Re Msgr. Dzieiak’s suggestion that ND declare the university to be non catholic, that will never happen. Re Foster Nolan’s question as to what is to be done. To me the answer is obvious. Bishop Rhoades should tell Father Jenkins to immediately cease calling ND a catholic institution. I would also like to see a call for the cessation of donations until there appears some indication of a return to sanity within the administration. A former member of the Sorin Society, I have not donated a dime since they honored the nation’s number one advocate of infanticide.

  6. Modernism is the synthesis of all heresies because it denies that there Is only One Spirit Of Perfect Love Between The Father And The Son, Who Proceeds From Both The Father And The Son, in The Ordered Communion Of Perfect Love, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity.

    Authentic Love does not divide, it multiplies, as in The Loaves and Fishes. Filioque.

  7. “Bishop D’Arcy disclosed that Father Jenkins ‘chose not to dialogue with his bishop on these two matters [The Vagina Monologues and Obama affair], both pastoral and both with serious ramifications for the care of souls, which is the core responsibility of the local bishop.’ ” Clearly this is persevering obstinately in the promotion of manifest grave sin by scandalously failing to acknowledge the manifest grave sin as such. Does Canon 915 not apply here in Fr. Jenkins’ case and possibly his superior’s as well? Canon 915: “Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.” Something substantive must be done to discipline the likes of the Fr. Jenkins of the world. If not Canon 915, then what? The Church has the authority after sufficient (decades-long, in this case) patience with her members to take the necessary actions to guard the unity of the Church and the integrity of its teaching on faith and morals. While we can lament the clearly lamentable, what is the solution to this long-standing problem of rogue university presidents proceeding from the religious Congregation of the Holy Cross? Improving Moreau Seminary doesn’t deal with Fr. Jenkins right now. What can the Church do now regarding Fr. Jenkins’ obstinate perseverance?

  8. Charles Schubert August 13, 2016 at 4:29 pm

    Dear Bill, As a classmate of yours you surely are aware of how I’ve ranted over the years against “Friar” Jenkins’ and his pursuit of the Secular/Progressive agenda he’s installed at our beloved Notre Dame.. From his acceptance of a secular faculty majority to his embrace of Barack Obama and Joe Biden to his snub of the Seeberg family and his own Bishop, the man has brought Our Lady’s University to a level no more Catholic than the most liberal of Jesuit-run universities in America. “Friar” Jenkins aspires to see Notre Dame attain the esteemed intellectual heights of Harvard or Princeton. WHOOPEE! Does anyone doubt that Father Jenkins is already preparing an invitation to Hillary Clinton to announce her anti-Christian nominees to the Supreme Court from a Notre Dame setting?? Lord spare this Republic, Bill !! Pax, Charlie

  9. Joseph Lewis Heil, PLS, 1959 August 13, 2016 at 2:18 pm

    If Fr. Jenkins, his administration, the trustees, and faculty truly believed and adhered to the Land O’Lakes statement, they would reject the horrid “authority” of political correctness. What is more anathema to every (Catholic or secular) university’s true autonomy and academic freedom than political correctness?

  10. Msgr Thomas Dzielak, '74 (graduate school) August 12, 2016 at 7:08 pm

    As a graduate student who attended summer school in the early 1970s I am gravely disappointed that Notre Dame is honoring politicians who claim to be Catholic while thumbing their noses at essential Catholic doctrine. If Notre Dame is determined to “do it my way” then it should be honest to say it no longer desires to identify itself as a Catholic university.

  11. It is disheartening.
    Great article Bill. We all pray that Our Lady’s University can become, once again, a great, if not the greatest. “Catholic” University in America. We have a long way to go to recreate that image.
    Keep carrying the lantern

  12. How do you propose to identify existing or prospective faculty members who are “commited to the witness of the faith?” Is a baptismal certificate and evidence of parish registration sufficient? Or are department chairs expected to probe more deeply into a candidate’s religious beliefs and practices?

  13. Calvin Bell, M.D. August 12, 2016 at 1:58 pm

    Watching Joe Biden who recently “officiated” at a homosexual wedding speak at Notre Dame commencement broke my heart. Breaks my heart to see the “catholic” magisterium at Notre Dame scandalize our students. One of these current students is my daughter. I pray that she is able to see through the malignant fog which has enveloped our Lady’s university.

  14. AMEN… and mea maxima culpa for inadequate opposition on my part and MOST of our Alumni-Alumnae…my ND grandfather (dec.) and father (dec.) and I and my Family ‘feel, see and are intellectually angered’ by the tenure effects of Fr. Jenkins and his (their) responses to secular ambivalence.
    Since we are not capable of countering the ‘bottomless money-pot’, we rely on Cruxcis Spes Unica. D.E.Huber ’56

  15. Herb and Mary Furth August 12, 2016 at 11:06 am

    Right on Bill!! Keep up your good work.Those “nominal Catholics are out to ruin this country.We can’t let that happen.

  16. It all began when Fr. Hesburg was ‘converted’ to globalism and became a member of the Council for Foreign Relations (CFR) in about 1972. He may have thought it would be good for the university financially (and it was), but he who pays the piper calls the tune!

  17. Neil B Connelly August 12, 2016 at 8:15 am

    As an alumnus, I used to give annually, but I stopped when ND gave an honorary degree to President Obama. Money seems to be the only thing that President Jenkins covets. That, and the adulation of “progressive” academia. In my humble opinion, he is an embarassment to Notre Dame’s Catholic traditions and identity. What does ND stand for today? I don’t know. It certainly does not stand for Catholic values.

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