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Did Obama Bring Hope to Notre Dame?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | May 20, 2009

Now that the incident is behind us, let me make a confession: I wasn't at all surprised when Notre Dame announced that President Obama would be the commencement speaker, and receive an honorary degree.

Shocked, yes. Appalled, definitely. Perhaps "scandalized" would not be too strong a word. But surprised? Not at all.

Let's be honest: Notre Dame's decision to honor the President was perfectly in keeping with the overall trend in the university's policies over the past 40 years.

The invitation to Obama prompted many conservative Catholics to announce that Notre Dame had sold its birthright-- had betrayed its Catholic identity for the sake of secular prestige. I don't disagree with that diagnosis. But as I read the laments, despite my sympathy with the authors, I couldn't help but recall that memorable scene in A Man for All Seasons, when Richard Rich tells Cromwell that he is pensive because "I've lost my innocence." Cromwell shoots back: "Some time ago. You only just noticed?"

Notre Dame made the decision to downplay its Catholic identity "some time ago"-- in the 1960s, when the Holy Cross fathers ceded administrative control to a lay board, and Father Ted Hesburgh led the charge as the presidents of leading Catholic colleges signed the Land o' Lakes statement, virtually declaring their independence from the Church magisterium.

For the span of a full generation now, Notre Dame has been plotting its educational course to satisfy secular standards. The school boasts a magnificent Catholic heritage, and there are many fine, devout Catholics on the faculty and in the student body. (In all the times I have visited the campus, I have never passed by the grotto and failed to find someone praying there.) But for most practical purposes Notre Dame has been a secularized institution for decades. It is possible, certainly, to receive a fine and distinctively Catholic education at Notre Dame. But it is also possible to matriculate and graduate as an agnostic-- not having consciously rejected the faith, but having remained indifferent through those four crucial years.

A major university should be not only an educational institution but an engine of change, producing bright young people who will bring about change in society. For a distinctively Catholic institution, the goal of that change should be the spread of the Gospel. Students should be formed, enabled, and encouraged to bring their neighbors and colleagues closer to Christ.

Yes, a Catholic school should be an instrument of cultural change. And I feel sure that Notre Dame administrators, past and present, would agree on that point. But here is the crucial consideration: What sort of cultural change does the school encourage? Does the university expect its alumni to change society, to conform to the teachings of the Catholic Church? Or to change the Church, to conform to the prevailing wisdom of secular society. At a typical commencement ceremony (whether or not the President attends), are the graduating seniors exhorted to be loyal Catholics who reform America, or loyal Americans who reform the Church?

(If you cannot quickly answer that question as it applies to Notre Dame, let me pose a second question that might help to clarify things. Over the past 25 years, who has been the most prominent theologian on the Notre Dame faculty? I am not asking for the name of the best theologian, or the one whose work will have the most lasting impact, but the one whose name springs immediately to mind: Father Richard McBrien.)

It is a bleak picture: as bleak as January in northwestern Indiana. Notre Dame is not lost to the faith; many fine Catholic students and professors thrive there. But the university, as an institution, is not dedicated to the pursuit and promotion of truth as the Church proclaims that truth. Which means that Notre Dame, the most prestigious of all America's Catholic universities, is not really a Catholic university in the true meaning of that term.

But again, this is not news; all this has been true for decades. However, for decades the leadership of the Catholic Church in this country chose to ignore the problem, and maintain the pretence that Notre Dame, and many other similar schools, remained what it had once been: a bastion of the faith.

Now that has "changed, changed utterly." And with apologies to Yeats, I dare to hope and pray that another "terrible beauty is born."

With the invitation to President Obama, the administrators under the Golden Dome confirmed what perceptive observers had known for a generation: Notre Dame judges as the world judges. The White House carries enormous prestige. The fact that its current occupant promotes policies inimical to the Catholic faith is an afterthought.

The conflict between what a Catholic university should be and what Notre Dame had become-- the "disconnect," to use the popular term-- was suddenly too great to overlook. So over the past several weeks more than 80 American bishops have clearly, explicitly stated that Notre Dame was wrong to honor President Obama at commencement. This display of episcopal leadership is completely unprecedented, at least in my lifetime. After so many years of silence-- a silence that appeared to give tacit consent--dozens of bishops have chastised the leaders of a major Catholic institution for their failure to uphold the faith.

President Obama's appearance at Notre Dame may be forgotten by secular essayists; the event may be mentioned only in the footnotes of American political history. But it could be a major turning point in the history of American Catholicism.

Will this be the incident that finally roused the American hierarchy from its slumber? Will this be the moment at which Catholic educators are forced to confront their responsibilities, to mold their schools into institutions that respect and promote Catholic truth once again? Will Catholic bishops and Catholic institutions make the commitment to challenge popular attitudes, brave public opposition, and resolve to transform our society?

We can hope. We can pray. We can build on the strong statements issued by our bishops in these past weeks, and apply the logic of those statements to other institutions, other conflicts.

Yes, President Obama's appearance brought hope to Notre Dame. Not in the way he intended.

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