Notre Dame Punts

Published January 3, 2013

National Review Online

In the pantheon of Notre Dame football anecdotes, “Win one for the Gipper” barely beats out Lou Holtz’s lesson in Mariology — a legendary bon mot that, though doubtless embellished over the decades, retains a certain salience today, on the cusp of the faux national championship game between the Fighting Irish and Alabama on January 7.

Back when Holtz was coaching the lads from South Bend, he and his team attended a night-before-the-big-game banquet with an archrival, whose chaplain was called upon to offer grace before meals. The enemy-team cleric went on at some length, asking the Lord to ensure that no one got hurt, that all would be good sportsmen, that everyone would become friends, punctuating his intentions with the antiphon, “Because we know, dear God, that You don’t care who wins tomorrow.” After the meal, Coach Holtz got up to make a few remarks, thanked the other side’s chaplain for an inspiring benediction, and said, “And it’s true: God doesn’t care who wins tomorrow. But His Mother does.”

God, according to orthodox theology, cannot do anything that contradicts the divine nature, so it is a certainty that the Deity cares not a whit who wins the artificial “national championship game” concocted by the cartel known as the Bowl Championship Series. For to do so would contradict that divine attribute of Absolute Truth. Whoever wins on January 7 will be the BCS champion. But to confuse that with a genuine national champion, of the sort crowned by the NCAA in its basketball tournaments every year, is to make a major category error.

As for God’s Mother, I can believe that she indeed cares about the many fine young men who attend Our Lady’s university and who will do their best to march “onward to victory,” as the most famous of ND fight songs bids them do in Miami next Monday. Indeed, I suspect that Our Lady’s maternal solicitude for her boys extends in a special way to ND’s stellar linebacker (and my candidate for the Heisman Trophy), Manti Te’o, a Mormon.

But I wouldn’t be surprised if Our Lady is very unhappy these days with the administration of her university. That unhappiness should be shared by all who understand the singular place that Notre Dame holds in both the American Catholic imagination and the American imagination about Catholicism. For given an unprecedented opportunity to do some evangelical witnessing before what many believe will be the largest audience ever to watch a college football game, Notre Dame has punted.

Both contenders for the BCS championship get a free 30-second spot on the ESPN broadcast, during which they can say whatever they want about themselves. Insofar as I’m aware, the spots are not subject to censorship by either the BCS or the politically correct managers at ESPN (as Super Bowl ads are subject to censorship by the equally p.c. leadership of the National Football League). It’s an open field, and you can, as Vince Lombardi would have said, “run to daylight” with impunity.

Now if you imagine yourself, as Notre Dame does, to be the particular embodiment of the Catholic ethos in the United States, you might see this as an opportunity to address, in a non-aggressive but unmistakable way, one or another (or both) of the two causes that define serious, culture-forming Catholicism in 21st-century America: the pro-life cause and the cause of religious freedom.

Fifteen days after the Alabama-Notre Dame game, millions of Catholics throughout the United States will mark the fortieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade, that act of “raw judicial power” (as dissenting Justice Byron White put it) that galvanized what has become the largest movement of compassion and legal reform since the civil-rights movement, and indeed the natural heir to the civil-rights movement: the pro-life movement. As for religious freedom, Notre Dame is currently a litigant in legal action challenging the constitutionality and legality of the Obama administration’s mandate that virtually all employers must provide, as part of the health-care insurance they offer employees, coverage of procedures that the Catholic Church deems gravely immoral: a frontal assault on religious freedom that has inspired millions of Americans to take up the defense of the first freedom — religious liberty — as they had never expected they would have to do in these United States.

Imagine, therefore, a free, choose-your-topic Notre Dame spot during halftime of the BCS championship game that ended with “We’re Notre Dame: We help women in crisis pregnancies and we defend the right to life for all, from conception until natural death.” Or, just as topically, a spot that ended, “We’re Notre Dame: And we defend religious freedom for everyone, at home and abroad.” Such spots were suggested to the leadership of Our Lady’s university; certainly Notre Dame’s leadership, had it approached this unprecedented evangelical opportunity with that mixture of creativity and edge that the university always promotes itself as having, could have come up with ways to seize the moment and lift up the pro-life cause, or the religious-freedom cause, or both, on its own.

But no: The Notre Dame spot was pre-released on January 3 with the university’s usual fanfare, and after a set of images featuring “Touchdown Jesus” on the university’s library and candlelight vigils by students, Notre Dame decided to tell the country that it was “No. 1” — in graduating its student-athletes.

An admirable accomplishment? Certainly.

An anodyne ad that trades on Catholic imagery without an ounce of substantive Catholic message? Just as certainly.

A cowardly decision by the Notre Dame administration?

Well, as they would say on the old Monday Night Football commercials, “You make the call.”

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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