Monday, May 18, 2009

Notre Dame Is In An Identity Crisis

The University of Notre Dame du Luc must decide what it will be: a great Catholic university or a great secular university. It cannot be both, although either way it will remain a great university.

The invitation to President Obama to deliver the commencement address and receive an honorary degree brings the issue to the forefront. This post is neither about President Obama’s views nor the tone and tenor of his remarks. Nor is it about American views on abortion, although I do not believe the recent polls which say more Americans are pro-life than pro-choice. It is about Notre Dame.

The response by Catholic clergy and parishioners was underwhelming to say the least. Bishops protested, including the Bishop of South Bend, Indiana. Students demonstrated and protestors were arrested. Harvard Professor, and former Ambassador to the Vatican, Mary Ann Glendon, turned down a prestigious medal she was to receive from Notre Dame because she would not share the stage with the President.

Notre Dame, as a private university, has the right to invite or disinvite any speaker it pleases.

It could have had the President deliver the commencement address, but not award an honorary degree, as occurred a few days earlier at Arizona State. It could have simply stated that the invitation to President Obama follows in Notre Dame’s hallowed tradition of honoring our Presidents on a non-partisan basis.

However, President John Jenkins’ initial response was inappropriate to a Christian university. It reads as though it was written by a sophistic lawyer splitting hairs @$950/hour, and not a moral theologian.

The 2004 Directive of the United States Council of Bishops forbids Catholic schools from honoring “those who act in defiance of our [Catholic] fundamental moral principles.” Certainly, the Presidential support of abortions runs afoul of this prohibition.

President Jenkins wrote to the Notre Dame Board of Trustees that the invitation was faithful to the letter and spirit of the Bishops Directive. He asserted that his understanding was that the Directive only applied to Catholic politicians.

That response only fueled the fire and brimstone.

Abortion is one of the greatest social issues of our times. One of the early steps taken by the Obama Administration is to reverse the “moral conscience” clause promulgated by the Bush Administration. This clause protects medical providers from official retaliation for exercising their moral conscience in refusing certain medical procedures or dispensing pharmaceuticals.

By way of full disclosure, I am pro-choice with reasonable conditions, but I fully support the right, and I believe constitutional right, of Catholic hospitals to refuse to perform abortions. I also do not believe members of the medical profession should lose their jobs because of opposition to abortion or contraception.

Notre Dame is the preeminent Catholic university in America, surpassing Georgetown, Boston College, and all the other great Jesuit Universities. This once small school in a small Indiana city, where Studebakers were once manufactured, became the foremost American Catholic University by the 1960’s. It had subway alumni in every city, town, and burg in America.

None of the other Catholic universities, with the modern exception of Boston College, could maintain football – not Fordham with its great alum Vince Lombardi, not the Galloping Gaels of St. Mary’s, not the undefeated, untied, and uninvited 1951 Dons of USF (whose public relations director was a student by the name of Pete Rozell).

Football made Notre Dame, and the great Fr. Hesburgh, as President from 1952 to 1987, used football to build a great modern, research university, a modern Catholic research university. Notre dame had only a $5 million endownment when Fr. Herburgh was inaugurated. It exceeded $7 billion last year.

The Jesuits are preeminent educators. They are equally great humanitarians. Sometimes the Pontiff has had to call the Superior General of the Society of Jesus to the Vatican for a soul to soul talk, but the Jesuits never turn their backs on the fundamental teachings of the Church. They are Catholics first, and Jesuits second.

Students at Boston College recently invited Professor Bill Ayres to address them. The Administration disinvited Ayres. I disagree with the decision because I believe students should be exposed to the full range of political and social viewpoints, but the Jesuits of BC this year remind me of the Jesuits at USF (my first alma mater) during the 1960’s.

Boston College, USF, and all the other Jesuit universities remember their Catholicism and their roots as a means to educate the poor, often immigrants to America and their sons and daughters. It could have been Irish and Italians and Poles five decades ago and Vietnamese and Hispanics today. It doesn’t matter. There may not be as many Jesuits as four decades ago. It doesn't matter. They have built great educational institutions, but still unmistakably Jesuit.

Notre Dame is not what it was. A sign that it was leaving its honor behind came with the dismissal of Ty Willingham as football coach. Notre Dame had made mistakes earlier, since every hiring of a new coach by any university represents a gamble. Gerry Faust, a successful high school coach at Cincinnati Moeller, was such a mistake. The University realized early on that Faust could not fill the shoes of Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, or Ara Parseghian, but the University honored his contract. They would lose games, but Notre Dame was Notre Dame. Two decades later, Ty Willingham was booted out with two years left on his contract. His mortal sin was not winning enough games.

Notre Dame was no longer Notre Dame, but just another football powerhouse for whom winning was everything.

And Notre Dame is becoming less of a Catholic University today. Will it follow the path of least resistence in the Academy and follow Marist University into secularism?

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