If it’s not a credible Catholic university, what’s the point?
On March 20, the University of Notre Dame proudly announced that President Barack Obama would give this year’s commencement address and receive the customary honorary degree. The news generated a firestorm of controversy because of Obama’s record on life issues, as many alumni and other university affiliates took to any venue they could find to protest the school’s decision. Within weeks, well over 300,000 people had signed an online petition of protest to president Fr. John Jenkins, nearly 60 American bishops—an unprecedented response— had publicly rebuked him, and major news outlets from the New York Times to Fox News had reported on the uproar.
Many outsiders, seeing the swell of public reaction and politicos like the recent Catholic convert Newt Gingrich opining on the affair, interpreted the controversy as being political in nature. The larger story at Notre Dame, however, is not about left versus right, but about the role of religion in higher education and public life. Reports of conservative alumni throwing out school paraphernalia or turning their diplomas to face the wall ring true not because Notre Dame is significant in national politics—Domers defer to Harvard and Berkeley when it comes to political demonstration. Notre Dame’s affairs captivate because it is America’s only top-tier university with a meaningful religious affiliation. The sight of the school honoring a pro-abortion politician, in flagrant violation of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 2004 statement “Catholics in Political Life,” suggests to orthodox observers that Notre Dame is in jeopardy of losing its defining Catholic character and replacing it with a saccharine imitation lacking any core principles.
Obama is not even the first pro-abortion politician the school has honored. In 1992 the school awarded the pro-abortion New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan the Laetare Medal, American Catholicism’s highest award. In 1984 it gave New York governor Mario Cuomo a podium to deliver his famous speech rationalizing pro-choice politics for Catholics.
In fact, Notre Dame’s Catholic credentials have been hanging by a thread since 1967, the year that president Fr. Theodore Hesburgh convened Catholic educators in Wisconsin to draw up the Land O’Lakes statement that declared Catholic universities’ autonomy from the Church. In the 42 years since, liberal Catholics and administrators enamored with the U.S. News & World Report rankings have led Notre Dame down the path to secularization that William F. Buckley condemned his own school for taking in God and Man at Yale.
Recent years have obscured this trend, as the school has often gestured toward orthodox changes and avoided outrageous speakers like Cuomo. Consequently, the invitation extended to Obama surprised everyone, even campus liberals, and forced an overdue reckoning. It is suddenly clear again that the school, which in many ways represents American Catholicism, is at a crossroads between religious authenticity and secular prestige, and that perhaps it has already chosen its direction.
No one expressed this realization more poignantly than the iconic Ralph McInerny, a prominent philosopher and novelist and a Notre Dame professor of 54 years. After hearing the news, McInerny despaired of the school to which he has dedicated his life’s efforts, writing that for Notre Dame to fete Obama is “an unequivocal abandonment of any pretense at being a Catholic university. And it is in sad continuity with decades of waffling that have led with seeming inevitability to it.”
ALMOST EVERY YEAR a controversy at Notre Dame makes national news. In the past few years liberal students dragged out Eve Ensler’s feminist play The Vagina Monologues to provoke conservatives. They succeeded each time, because whereas other student bodies might struggle over issues like war or immigration, for Notre Dame the underlying dispute is whether the school will be authentically Catholic. Even the New York Times has reported on this tension, even as The Vagina Monologues is considered trite and boring at most other schools.
Jenkins’s rise to president in 2005 suggested a willingness to defend orthodoxy. Jenkins, a Holy Cross priest, like all Notre Dame presidents, is a highly regarded scholar of Thomas Aquinas. He gave a stirring inaugural address reflecting on the role of faith in education, promising “a whole-hearted commitment to uniting and integrating these two indispensable and wholly compatible strands of higher learning: academic excellence and religious faith.” With his credentials and ambitious attitude, Jenkins reinvigorated Notre Dame’s orthodox contingent. In his first year, however, Jenkins flip-flopped: first he announced in a faculty address his intention to forbid The Vagina Monologues on campus, but then later he changed his tune and sanctioned the play contingent on a few toothless restrictions, claiming academic freedom as a rationale.
Jenkins’s waffling on the issue disappointed conservatives but also inspired them to take matters into their own hands. Female students attempting to foster a better (or less depraved) notion of femininity than that of The Vagina Monologues organized the Edith Stein Conference, named after the Catholic feminist, saint, and martyr. This conference began to attract prominent academics and drew crowds that dwarfed those attending the Monologues. Concerned alumni founded Project Sycamore, a watchdog group named after a tree growing above the Grotto in the heart of the campus.
Some Holy Cross priests have hinted that, after announcing a decision he thought would energize the Catholic base, Jenkins in fact did not receive much support from the same alumni and students who had criticized the play in years past. Meanwhile, the faculty, knowing that the mere appearance of religiosity besting academic freedom can doom a school’s rankings, spoke loudly in favor of the play.
This obscures the nature of religious life at Notre Dame. It is dominated by what one administrator called “the John Paul II” generation—youth who pack the Sacred Heart Basilica on holy days, organize a large and activist right-to-life committee, and even lobby for a traditional Latin Mass on campus. They also are joining the Holy Cross brothers in healthy numbers—nine were consecrated as priests in the past three years. This generation has minted traditions that are distinctively Catholic, such as yearly, campus-wide Stations of the Cross and Eucharistic processions that draw hundreds of students across the quads.
Of the 80 percent of students who identify as Catholic, a majority care more about football than faith. The minority of students who are engaged in the religious life of the school, though, are activist and compose an organic movement. For example, there was much less of a top-down movement promoting the Edith Stein Conference than The Vagina Monologues, which was sponsored in its last run by three of the departments with the fewest Catholic faculty.
THAT THE FACULTY WOULD SIDE with liberalism and secularism in the debates over The Vagina Monologues and Obama’s invitation is no accident. Faculty members do not necessarily believe they have a stake in Notre Dame’s religious tradition, nor should they, given that the university explicitly disavowed any influence the Church might have on its faculty in the 1967 Land O’Lakes conference. Hesburgh intended the resulting Land O’Lakes statement as a response to the observations of Fr. John Tracy Ellis and others starting in the mid-’50s that Catholic schools were not competing on the top tiers of higher education, and that the Catholic curriculum might be the obstacle.
Accordingly, Land O’Lakes asserted that “to perform its teaching and research functions effectively the Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.” In other words, the religious academy was now bound to the Church only to the extent that the academics thought it should be.
Certainly Hesburgh was right that Notre Dame could achieve more. Thanks to him, it is ranked among the top 25 universities and boasts a multibillion dollar endowment. The unintended consequences of Land O’Lakes, however, have ravaged Catholic education. Hesburgh’s own school did not suffer the most—despite the uproar over Obama’s visit, Notre Dame is still far more authentically Catholic than other large universities. St. Louis University, for example, is no longer religious in any meaningful sense. Boston College and Georgetown, the next two most prestigious schools, struggle just to maintain the pretense of faith—earlier this year B.C. was roundly denounced by its own faculty merely for placing crucifixes in the classrooms. William Dempsey, the president of Project Sycamore, said it best: “As you look back on the Land O’Lakes statement and the subsequent desolation of Catholic education…that [conference] didn’t seem like a bright idea.”
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