What "Church" Does Notre Dame belong to?

Published May 13, 2009

Of all the commentary I’ve read on Notre Dame’s decision to invite President Obama to receive an honorary doctorate of laws as the university’s 2009 commencement speaker, the most disturbing came from Father Kenneth Himes of the Boston College theology department. In a Boston Globe story about Professor Mary Ann Glendon’s courageous (and correct) decision to decline Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal because the university had defied the U.S. bishops’s policy barring honors for pro-abortion politicians at Catholic events, Father Himes said this:

“There are some well-meaning people who think Notre Dame has given away its Catholic identity, because they have been caught up in the gamesmanship of American higher education, bringing in a star commencement speaker even if that means sacrificing their values, and that accounts for some of this…But one also has to say that there is a political game going on here, and part of that is that you demonize the people who disagree with you, you question their integrity, you challenge their character, and you brand these people as moral poison. Some people have simply reduced Catholicism to the abortion issue, and, consequently, they have simply launched a crusade to bar anything from Catholic institutions that smacks of any sort of open conversation.”

I trust Father Himes is not referring here to Professor Glendon, or William McGurn of the Wall Street Journal, or Father Wilson Miscamble, CSC, of the Notre Dame faculty, or me, or other serious critics of Notre Dame’s decision. For if Father Himes is suggesting that any of us has demonized the president, branded him “moral poison,” reduced Catholicism to the abortion issue, or summoned a crusade to eliminate debate at Catholic colleges and universities, he is perilously close to committing calumny. Yes, there are self-serving nuts in the forest, some of whom have seized the Obama/Notre Dame issue for their own purposes. By why does Father Himes waste time bashing fringe crazies? Why not engage the arguments of the serious critics? Why not attempt a theologically coherent defense of what seems an incomprehensible decision — awarding an honorary doctorate of laws to a man determined to enshrine in law something the Catholic Church regards as a gross violation of justice?

Another colleague (and Notre Dame grad), Professor Russell Hittinger, who holds the William K. Warren Chair in Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa, clarified one key facet of this controversy in an e-mail. Notre Dame, he suggested, has adopted a “purely American low-church position of [institutional] autonomy,” by acting as if the local bishop, John D’Arcy, has nothing to say to which the university must pay serious attention — although Bishop D’Arcy, a longtime Notre Dame booster, was speaking for the settled position of the American episcopate in asking the university’s president, Father John Jenkins, CSC, to reconsider his decision to honor Obama. As Professor Hittinger continued, this fracas “has nothing to do with academic freedom nor with ecclesiastical supervision of routine academic procedures and judgments. It is ecclesiological all the way down — what Church is Notre Dame ‘in,’ if any?…Notre Dame is speaking and acting as though it were not a member of the local Church, let alone Rome.”

That’s exactly right. There’s also a high-stakes “political game” here, though not the one Father Himes suggests. The Obama administration is full of very smart political operators. Reading last November’s electoral entrails, they’ve sensed the possibility of driving a wedge through the Catholic community in America, dividing Catholics from their bishops and thus securing the majority Catholic vote Obama received in 2008. And they’ve shrewdly judged that the soft underbelly of Catholic resistance to the Obama administration’s radical agenda on the life issues is composed of Catholic intellectuals, their prestige institutions (like Notre Dame and Georgetown), and their opinion journals — the very people and opinion centers who claimed last year that Obama was the true pro-life candidate. It’s a clever move on the political chessboard, and barring extraordinary actions from the bishops, it will likely meet with considerable success.

Politics aside, though, the crucial question remains this: just what Church are Notre Dame and its supporters “in”, anyway?

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

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