Prestige or Truth?
The challenge facing Notre Dame.


On Sunday, Barack Obama will give the commencement address at Notre Dame. He is also going to receive an honorary doctorate of laws. The Rev. John Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president and one of the first friends I made at the university, will present it to him.

Three hundred thousand Catholics have signed petitions criticizing the university. Over $8 million in donations has been withheld in protest. Local bishop John D’Arcy is boycotting the commencement. Scores of other bishops have spoken out against honoring Obama, because the president has (in Bishop D’Arcy’s words) “reaffirmed, and has now placed in public policy, his long-stated unwillingness to hold human life as sacred.” D’Arcy suggested that Notre Dame had chosen “prestige over truth.”

Many people have asked me since the Obama visit was announced on March 20: What’s happened to Notre Dame?

The answer is that nothing has happened to Notre Dame. The decision to honor Obama and the way the university has handled the fallout have been completely in character. This place is not your grandpa’s Notre Dame, to be sure. But it is certainly the place where I began teaching law in 1992.

Sunday is nonetheless going to be a defining moment for Notre Dame. The university — by and through Father Jenkins — will have made a fateful choice, its most important decision during my 17 years here and one that will greatly affect American Catholicism as a whole.

Let me explain.

It is easy to see the appeal of Obama to Notre Dame. Our country has one president, and he is giving only three commencement speeches this year. One is traditionally at a service academy; this year, at Annapolis. Notre Dame (along with Arizona State) won the prize coveted by almost every university.

So far, Bishop D’Arcy seems to be on the right track: Notre Dame chose prestige.

That is nothing new. Prestige — as measured by U.S. News rankings, academic peer recognition, NIH grants, endowment size, New York Times mentions — has been the gold standard at Notre Dame as long as I have been here. Notre Dame’s Catholic identity has largely become the preserve of campus ministry and, to some extent, of the rules governing student life. On the academic side — in research, teaching, publishing, and the hiring and retention of faculty — the truths of the Catholic faith are missing in action. Notre Dame’s central academic aspiration has nothing to do with Catholicism. It is the Association of American Universities, a group of 62 American research schools — none of them Catholic — that Notre Dame is desperate to join.

Notre Dame’s response to criticism about Obama has been characteristically self-referential and polemical. In his March 20 announcement, for example, Father Jenkins said that “presidents from both parties have come to Notre Dame for decades to speak to our graduates.” President Obama will follow, Jenkins says, “in this long tradition.”

But this “tradition” is not as robust as Father Jenkins suggests. George Bush spoke at commencement but Bill Clinton never did, making it one president in the last 17 years. Traditions are not, in any event, self-perpetuating. They are consciously renewed by the free choices of those who maintain them. Notre Dame has chosen to end many valued traditions since I came here, often to keep pace with academic peers. It could choose to end this one.

In a more recent talk to alumni, Father Jenkins shifted the focus away from Obama altogether. He said that “the university also has a tradition of expressing respect for the political order by offering the elected leader of our nation an honorary degree.”

A certain patriotism is appropriately expressed by any Catholic institution, Notre Dame included. But patriotism does not mean that the winner of 270 electoral votes — whoever it turns out to be — is deserving of honors at a Catholic institution. This is to give Caesar more than is rightly his due; it is to give Caesar some of what is God’s.

Father Jenkins says, too, that prior presidential speakers had “a wide range of views” and that we (Notre Dame) “certainly don’t endorse all” of them. President Obama’s case is “similar.” Notre Dame does not endorse all of his views, especially, Jenkins said, those concerning human life.

But not all disagreements are created equal. Why doesn’t full-throttle support for a grave injustice such as abortion disqualify one from university honors? I am confident that no one — not even a high-office holder — who publicly embraced a less respectable injustice, such as racism or anti-Semitism, would be fêted here. In moral truth if not in civil law, lethal discrimination against the unborn is at least as monstrous.