Where do things stand, two months after the University of Notre Dame defied the bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend and some eighty of his fellow-bishops by awarding an honorary doctorate of laws to the university’s 2009 commencement speaker, the President of the United States?
From the administration’s point of view, President Obama’s Notre Dame speech was an unmitigated success. The president was eloquent, high-minded, and decent-spirited. He also did something no previous president had ever done — he injected himself into the ongoing debate among U.S. Catholics over Catholic identity, by suggesting that the “real” Catholics were those who, like Notre Dame, welcomed him for “dialogue.” This story-line — that the Notre Dame controversy was about openness and dialogue, on the one hand, versus narrow-mindedness and fanaticism, on the other — was successfully sold to the national media by the administration, aided and abetted by the president’s Catholic intellectual acolytes. That, in the process of fostering “dialogue,” the administration was playing wedge politics, dividing a significant number of the Catholic bishops of the United States from their people, went largely unremarked.
But that is, was, and remains the issue here: to vary James Carville on the 1992 election, “It’s the ecclesiology, stupid.” That the vast majority of Catholics in the U.S. never understood that this entire affair was about the nature, structure, and discipline of the Church, not about politics, demonstrates just how attenuated Catholic identity in America has become, and just how poorly catechized many Catholics are.
This bodes poorly for the future. In the Obama affair, Notre Dame claimed, not only an internal liberty to order its academic life according to its own best lights, but a liberty over against the local bishop. In effect, Notre Dame declared itself independent of the Catholic Church, as the Catholic Church is embodied in South Bend, Indiana, by the bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend. The administration and trustees of Notre Dame would doubtless protest that they are proudly Catholic. But the question remains: What is the embodiment, the instantiation, the living reality of the Catholic Church to which they profess loyalty? Where is it? Who speaks for it? What difference does it make what he says?
As for the bishops, they must now face the ecclesiological facts of life caused by four decades of ineffective catechesis compounded by the afterburn of the Long Lent of 2002 and its revelations of episcopal irresponsibility. One of the primary purposes of Vatican II was to lift up the local bishop as a genuine shepherd and father of the local Church, not simply a branch manager assigned by the Roman corporate GHQ. Very few Catholics in the United States understand this, however. They may revere the pope; they may love their pastor; but they have little sense of ecclesial connection to the local bishop or understanding of his responsibilities. So when crunch time comes and bishops try to defend the Catholic identity of Catholic institutions (medical, charitable, or educational), the default response of too many Catholics in the U.S. is that “this is just politics.” The same default kicks in when a bishop reminds a politician that he or she is in spiritual jeopardy if they receive holy communion while being in a defective state of communion with the Church on grave moral issues.
This default badly limits the bishops’ maneuvering room. Were a bishop to summon the courage to deploy his canonical authority and declare that the University of X can no longer be considered a Catholic institution, he would almost certainly be misunderstood by a large majority of his people as acting politically, not ecclesiastically — as a partisan, not as a shepherd defending the integrity of the flock. That doesn’t mean that such things shouldn’t be done. But doing them requires careful catechetical preparation and an effective communications strategy for explaining what was done, and why.
In sum, and to revert to my opening question: how do things look, two months after the Notre Dame affair? Bullish, for the administration and its wedge agenda. Bearish indeed for those concerned about religious freedom, Catholic identity, and the recovery of episcopal leadership in the United States.
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.