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.
Tim 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.
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.
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.
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.