Notre Dame University’s invitation to honor President Obama at this year’s graduation ceremony has caused quite a roil among conservative Catholics and the pro-life community. Your Uncle Di was certainly in a tiff when he first learned about it. George Weigel called it a “very bad thing”. Candace De Russy observed that it is “perfidious”, that is, faithless, or treacherous. Bill McGurn dubbed it “incoherent.” ( You can read a list of remarks here and here.)
However, after his initial upset, your Uncle Di recalled that little declaration made over forty years ago by the Notre Dame administrator-in-chief, Fr. Theodore Hesburgh. It was forty years ago when the leaders of the major Catholic universities agreed to the Land O’Lakes rebellion of 1967.
Notre Dame’s Fr. Hesburgh was the rebels’ alpha male who ceremoniously announced that Catholic colleges and universities should be independent of, and no longer submissive to the teaching authority of the Catholic Church in their teaching and research functions, if they wanted to be “effective.” Evidently, the Notre Dame trustees, and the bulk of its faculty wanted the school to be “effective”—that is, well thought of in the editorial pages of the New York Times. They accepted the terms of rebellion. The ties to the Church were kept in name only.
This was all clearly and piously set forth in the second sentence in the Land O’Lakes declaration:
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.
The statement has become mere fine print over time after it was buried in the marketing flourishes of the university public relations machinery. It is, nevertheless, the academic version of Non serviam. At the very least, it leaves aside Catholic teaching on artificial contraception, embryonic research and abortion—the flash points for the current outrage. But beyond the hot button moral teachings of the Church, this declaration positions the entire corpus of Catholic doctrine as negotiable elements within the “academic community itself.”
Unless the academic community itself determines to accept the truth that God is “… the Father, the Almighty,…” the assertion has no claim over the intellectual life of the school. The entire Nicene Creed and the corpus of Church doctrine is simply irrelevant to the intellectual life of the school unless, until, or as long as the academic community itself makes it relevant. The academic community itself is no longer a disciple, it is the magisterium.
If Church teaching on abortion becomes a problem, the academic community itself can decide to minimize it. If the doctrine on the Incarnation, or the eternal paternity of God the Father is a problem, well, here today, gone tomorrow.
According to the Notre Dame administration, the academic community itself contains all teaching authority within the confines of the school. The Pope and the bishop have no teaching authority inside the school except that granted to them by the academic community itself. Arguably, God has no authority at Notre Dame—unless the academic community itself sees fit. To claim otherwise would be a violation of “true autonomy.” God forbid!
The Notre Dame administration has never repudiated the Land O’Lakes rebellion. Naturally, Notre Dame does not require its theology faculty to submit to the Mandatum set forth in the encyclical Ex Corde Ecclesia. Indeed, its current president has rendered the Mandatum a shell game.
Today’s outrage at the Notre Dame administration over the Obama invitation presupposes that Notre Dame is actually Catholic. But is Notre Dame actually Catholic? It would seem, after all, in the fine print that it is not. Being Catholic is not the same as being a member of a club, a social network, or a football booster, or a place that the bishop occasionally has dinner or says Mass. Simply because Notre Dame puts the word Catholic in its mission statement, and the local bishop has not gotten around to striking it from the phone listing in the diocesan directory, doesn’t mean it’s Catholic.
A Catholic person, or a Catholic school is a member of the mystical body of Christ, which entails, as Newman put it in his Discourses to Mixed Congregations, the unqualified willingness to submit yourself to the living authority of the Catholic Church. Since the Notre Dame administration is not willing to submit the school to legitimate Catholic authority, it is arguably not Catholic, and has not been Catholic since July 23, 1967, the day Fr. Hesburgh signed the Land O’Lakes declaration of independence.
The university has marketed itself to Catholic donors, Catholic parents, and Catholic students, and conservative journals. It has some fine Catholic teachers on its faculty, and a percentage of its graduates are energetically Catholic. All of this has, I suppose, made many of us believe that Notre Dame is a Catholic university. But marketing is not reality, and the sincerity of its students and a handful of its faculty does not make the school’s identity. The identity is in “the academic community itself.”
Land O’Lakes endures as the law of the land in South Bend. There is a basis for real outrage that should be expressed by US Catholics against the Notre Dame administration and its trustees, but focusing on the current situation with the President of the United States misses the real mark by a wide margin.