Ethics & Public Policy Center

More Cracks in the Golden Dome

Published in National Review Online on June 10, 2011



In 2001, the University of Notre Dame hired George O’Leary as its football coach: a position regarded by some alums, boosters, and board members as only slightly less significant than that held by the university’s president, and by others as of undoubtedly greater importance. Shortly after the hire, the Manchester Union Leader disclosed that O’Leary had engaged in some serious résumé padding, including claims for a master’s degree he had not earned from a university that did not exist. O’Leary’s tenure as head coach of the Fighting Irish ended three weeks after it began.

It now seems that, over the ensuing decade, Notre Dame didn’t learn much about due diligence, even as its leaders forgot a few more things about integrity and honesty.

Late in the spring term, Notre Dame announced that one of its alumnae, Roxanne Martino, a prominent Chicago investment manager, had been elected a member of the university’s board of trustees. Such a seemingly routine appointment – wealthy alum joins university board – would have drawn little notice at a less contentious moment in Catholic higher education. But by its 2009 decisions to make an unabashedly pro-abortion Barack Obama its commencement speaker and to honor him with an honorary doctor of laws degree, Notre Dame invited intense scrutiny by Catholics determined to hold the country’s flagship Catholic university to a standard of Catholic identity it seemed unwilling to maintain by itself. Thus, shortly after Ms. Martino joined the Notre Dame board, it came to light that she had been a longtime and significant contributor to Emily’s List, one of the nation’s premier pro-abortion lobbies.

Emily’s List does not mask its agenda behind a blizzard of euphemisms. Its website asks the visitor to “HELP US ELECT PRO-CHOICE DEMOCRATIC WOMEN.” The What We Do part of the site makes the organization’s goals quite clear: “We’re a full-service political team with a simple mission: to elect pro-choice Democratic women.” It would take a very dim observer of the contemporary political scene not to know what Emily’s List is all about. One might barely imagine that a Chicago donor who reflexively gives to the usual Democratic causes could write a check to Emily’s List under the impression that the organization was some sort of generic feminist lobby – although imagining a generic feminist lobby that is not pro-abortion takes even more, er, imagination.

Faced with the revelation that one of its new board members – one of those charged with guiding Notre Dame into the future – was in the habit of writing large checks to a pro-abortion lobby, the Notre Dame administration tried to wriggle out of the bind by claiming that Ms. Martino hadn’t realized that Emily’s List did what Emily’s List does. When that invited the obvious rejoinder that no one so unaware of elementary political reality had a claim to help guide a major university into the future, board chairman Richard Notebaert tried to save Ms. Martino, doubling down while clumsily changing the subject.

In an e-mail to the Wall Street Journal‘s William McGurn, a Notre Dame alumnus who was on the case, Notebaert harrumphed that the fact that Ms. Martino “erred in not knowing completely about two of the many organizations to which she makes contributions does not in any way diminish the exemplary way in which she has lived her life and faith.” Moreover, the chairman averred, this is precisely “the sort of person we want on our board”: someone who is “a Notre Dame graduate, loving parent, dedicated to national and international service, a highly regarded professional in her field, and committed to all Catholic teachings.” (Memo to Mr. Notebaert: If those are your criteria for Notre Dame board membership, your letter inviting an alumnus of Notre Dame who is a distinguished journalist, a former presidential speechwriter, and a loving husband and parent to join the Notre Dame board should be in the mail today; I’m sure Bill McGurn will consider the possibility carefully.)

A week or so into the controversy, it seemed clear to all except the university’s board chairman and its president, Fr. John Jenkins, that Ms. Martino was unsalvageable: Either Notre Dame had a significant donor to an aggressive pro-abortion lobby among its trustees, or it had a board member whose judgment in making donations “on the basis of a recommendation from others” (as Notebaert put it to McGurn) raised severe questions about her competence to serve the university and its Catholic mission. Yet the dissembling continued and the implications of it for Notre Dame’s governance were briskly identified on June 4 by Fr. Wilson Miscamble, CSC, a distinguished diplomatic historian on the Notre Dame faculty.

In an address to a group of Notre Dame alumni concerned about the university’s Catholic identity, Miscamble said that board chairman Notebaert seemed “to have supplanted Fr. Jenkins in determining university policy” in the Martino affair. Then Miscamble, an Australian given to plain talking, cut to the chase: “If [Notebaert] can’t understand the damage that an appointment like this does to Notre Dame’s credibility and reputation as a Catholic university, then his credentials and capabilities to lead the board must surely be questioned.” And lest he be thought excessively clerical in calling out a lay board chairman, Father Miscamble immediately went on to lament the six members of his own religious order, the Congregation of the Holy Cross, who had acquiesced in Ms. Martino’s appointment.

After Father Jenkins had met with Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, this sad affair came to a formal end on June 8 when Ms. Martino resigned from the Notre Dame board, telling the Chicago Tribune that “the current controversy doesn’t allow me to be effective.” Yet the fallout from the Martino affair continues, and one finds some rather depressing indicators about Notre Dame’s future while sifting through the wreckage.

At no point during the controversy did the formidable Notre Dame publicity machine do the obvious and honorable thing: admit that due diligence had not been done; admit that a serious mistake had been made and that the mistake was deeply regretted; then state that Ms. Martino had been asked to remove herself from the board. Those watching from a distance could only conclude that Ms. Martino, Mr. Notebaert, and perhaps Father Jenkins simply did not understand what the fuss was about, and yielded only under unbearable pressure. That impression was strengthened by the affair’s untoward end game, which Father Miscamble described in a public statement after the Martino resignation:

I am grateful that Mrs. Martino had the decency to resign from the Board of Trustees but very disappointed that she included no apology in her statement for her sad record of donations to Emily’s List and other virulently pro-abortion PACs like Illinois State Personal PAC. I am further disappointed by the very limited press release from the University of Notre Dame and by the remarks of the board chairman, Mr. Richard Notebaert. He neither gives an apology for his earlier misleading statements concerning Mrs. Martino’s donations nor expresses regret for his failure to vet this appointment with appropriate diligence. Further, he gives no assurance that contributing in any way to explicitly “pro-choice” organizations in incompatible with service on the Notre Dame Board of Trustees.

The obtuseness displayed by the university administration and board chairman over the past two weeks suggests that neither the administration nor the board has learned the primary lesson it should have learned from the controversy over the Obama commencement in 2009: that an unambiguous, indeed happily robust, pro-life position, embodied in action and not just in abstract declarations of adhesion to Catholic teaching, is now the cultural marker of seriousness about C
atholic identity in the American public square.

That this fact of 21st-century American Catholic life makes things difficult for Catholic tribal Democrats is undeniable. But efforts to dilute the weight and density of that cultural marker by, among others, Notre Dame faculty who find in Barack Obama the living embodiment of Catholic social doctrine now look ever more farcical, as indeed they seemed highly implausible before the administration’s policies began to crumble. (Republicans tempted to gloat here should be very careful: Catholics determined to strengthen, not dilute, Catholic identity in Catholic institutions will turn their fire on squishy members of the GOP just as readily as fire has been turned on Democrats.)

Irrespective of the politics involved, though, what is really disturbing about all this from a Catholic point of view is just how out-of-it Notre Dame’s leadership seems to be. The administration and board of a university that has long imagined itself on the cutting edge of Catholic culture in the United States seem to have completely missed the great sea-change that has taken place in the public life of U.S. Catholics since Roe v. Wade, Blessed John Paul II, and the emergence of the pro-life cause as the prime, although surely not sole, indicator of Catholic seriousness amidst the sundry contentions of the public square.

A month or so before the Martino affair broke, the Notre Dame faculty senate voted down a proposed resolution commending the president, Father Jenkins, for his efforts to strengthen Notre Dame’s pro-life commitment in the wake of the Obama commencement. That was weird enough. But windy faculty senates with little real power often do weird things. What is so striking about the Martino case, however, is that it makes clear that Father Jenkins’s modest efforts to demonstrate the university’s pro-life commitment since the 2009 Obama commencement have been largely in vain. Things have gotten worse, not better, since 2009.

If an Emily’s List contributor is considered a fit member of Notre Dame’s board of trustees by, among others, members of the religious congregation that founded Notre Dame, and if the Notre Dame board chairman flails about defending such a decision by suggesting that the nominee in question is an ideal Domer trustee, then the Catholic learning curve in South Bend remains a steep one.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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