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Notre Dame vs. Church

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Notre Dame’s Imminent Honoring of President Obama Triggers a Storm of Protest

We have received countless messages and copies of letters to the University that are suffused with anger, sorrow, and indignation. Alumni are turning diplomas to the wall, putting class rings in drawers, ceasing contributions, changing wills, and resolving not to send children to Notre Dame. The Cardinal Newman Society petitioners number over 350,000, and some 100 signatures are added daily to the nearly 7,000 on our petition despite an initial limited distribution. The associated comments are instructive. For example:

As the mother of an incoming freshman to ND, [I am] so frustrated and sad! It hurts my heart that my dear son, a boy who loves his faith and loves the Church, has this wonderful moment in his life diminished by everyone in our life rightly decrying this University. Shame on Notre Dame for betraying all the faithful parents and students who have worked and sacrificed to go to this school.

Dismay extends beyond the Notre Dame family. According to a new Rasmussen poll, “by a 60% to 25% margin, U.S. Catholics say the university should not award an honorary degree to the president” but rather should follow the bishops’ guidelines. The degree of disapproval among regularly practicing Catholics would, of course, be much higher. A majority of Protestants, and even half of pro-choice Catholics, concur.

The protests have gained great force by the decision of Mary Ann Glendon, Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard, to reject the Laetare Medal and to refuse to participate in the commencement ceremonies. She will not, she has written Father Jenkins, play a role in Notre Dame’s plan “to honor a prominent and uncompromising opponent of the Church’s position on issues involving fundamental principles of justice.”

“The significance of Glendon’s refusal is enormous,” declared Father Raymond J. de Souza in an illuminating article. “The most accomplished Catholic laywoman in America – former ambassador to the Holy See and current president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences – has refused to accept Notre Dame’s highest honor.”

It is especially humiliating to have Ambassador Glendon mark the University’s transparent effort to deploy her as a shield against criticism. She acted after she “learned that ‘talking points'” issued by Notre Dame . . . in response to widespread criticism. . . impl[ied] that my acceptance speech would somehow balance the event.”

But it is her central objection that strikes to the heart of the matter: The University’s dismissal of the counsel of the nation’s bishops. “This [action], as you must know,” Ambassador Glendon declared,

was in disregard of the U.S. bishops’ express request of 2004 that Catholic institutions “should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles” and that such persons “should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.” That request, which in no way seeks to control or interfere with an institution’s freedom to invite and engage in serious debate with whomever it wishes, seems to me so reasonable that I am at a loss to understand why a Catholic university should disrespect it.

The question now, as Bishop D’Arcy has made clear, is whether Notre Dame is any longer linked in a meaningful way to the Church or whether it is Catholic only by way of self-declaration.

In his second statement, Bishop D’Arcy firmly disposed of Father Jenkins’spalpably infirm contention that his action does not collide with the bishops’ statement. An argument that rests, as Father Jenkins’s does, on a supposed ambiguity in the title of a document rather than upon the plain words of the provision itself is simply an embarrassment. But that aside, Bishop D’Arcy points out that it is the local Ordinary who is to interpret episcopal documents – and it is the local Ordinary whom Father Jenkins pointedly avoided consulting. Instead, he inquired of an unnamed number of unnamed university presidents who told him of communications with an unnamed number of unnamed bishops.

The Obama episode, it should be noted, was foreshadowed by two events last year that we have previously described: First, fifty bishops moved their conference away from Notre Dame because Father Jenkins refused to cancel The Vagina Monologues, and then Dr. Marye Anne Fox, a leading proponent of embryonic stem cell research (and member of the ND Board), gave the Graduate School commencement speech and was awarded an honorary degree.

The importance of the “terrible breach between Notre Dame and the Church,” as Bishop D’Arcy described it, is highlighted by Pope John Paull II’s description in the foremost papal document on Catholic universities, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, of the necessary relationship between a Catholic university and its bishop and the Church:

Every Catholic university has a relationship to the Church that is essential to its institutional identity. . . . [It] is to maintain communion with the universal Church and the Holy See; it is to be in close communion with the local bishop. Each bishop has the right and duty to watch over the preservation and strengthening of their Catholic character. This will be achieved if close personal and pastoral relationships exist between University and Church authorities characterized by close cooperation and dialogue. Bishops should be seen not as external agents but as participants in the life of the university.

In what surely must be an unprecedented chorus of episcopal criticism of the action of a Catholic university, sixty-six bishops to date, including three Cardinals and several archbishops, have united in condemnation of this bestowal of honors on President Obama. Many have spoken in strikingly stern and worrisome terms.One, for instance, has indicated he would “discourage local students from attending” the University. The Confraternity of Catholic Clergy has joined the condemnation, while Fr. Jenkins has been praised by the Presidents of the Jesuits institutions who have led the secularization movement and who are attempting to persuade bishops to remain quiet.

This episode validates the bishops’ 2004 policy declaration. Notre Dame’s action sends two messages: First, abortion and embryonic stem cell research, while morally wrong, are not terribly important. Pro-life witness by Notre Dame can properly be sacrificed for the supposed cachet of a Presidential appearance. Second, no heed need be paid to bishops when they speak in unison with respect to important questions of Catholic identity at Catholic institutions.

The twin grave vices of the University’s action – undermining of the pro-life forces and separation from Church – are admirably summarized in the courageousdissenting statement of ten priests of the Congregation of the Holy Cross:

It is our deep conviction that Notre Dame should lead by word and deed in upholding the Church’s fundamental teaching that human life must be respected and protected from the moment of conception. In so doing the University must take seriously the 2004 instruction of the U.S. Catholic Bishops that “Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors, or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.” We especially regret the fissure that the invitation to President Obama has opened between Notre Dame and its local ordinary and many of his fellow bishops. We express our deep gratitude to Bishop John D’Arcy for his leadership and moral clarity. We ask that the University give renewed consideration to Bishop D’Arcy’s thoughtful counsel which always has Notre Dame’s best interests at heart.

Excellent commentaries on this controversy abound. Examples of especially notable contributions in addition to Father de Souza’s are an article by George Weigel, a talk by Notre Dame Professor Alfred Freddosa to Notre Dame students, a Wall Street Journal essay by Notre Dame graduate William McGurn, aWashington Post piece by Kathleen Parker, and an article by Anthony J. Lausinger, the Vice President of National Right to Life and the father of eight ND graduates.

Three pieces in particular deserve special attention: William McGurn’sextraordinary recent address at Notre Dame; an especially perceptive analysis by a Notre Dame teacher who felt it necessary to write anonymously; and a riveting account by Lacy Dodd (’99) of her experience as a pregnant ND senior who embraced motherhood while her fellow student who fathered the child futilely urged abortion. We close with her words:

I’d like to ask this of Fr. John Jenkins: Who draws support from your decision to honor President Obama-the young, pregnant Notre Dame woman sitting in that graduating class who wants desperately to keep her baby, or the Notre Dame man who believes that the Catholic teaching on the intrinsic evil of abortion is just dining-room talk?