What is at stake for Notre Dame’s decision on Sunday? The answer to that question must also reckon frankly with Notre Dame’s bold aspiration to prominence and its astounding success at achieving it. Notre Dame has long described itself as the “place where the Church does its thinking.” A lot of people now believe it. Peter Steinfels wrote in last Saturday’s New York Times that “no wonder that Notre Dame, a venerable symbol of American Catholic identity, has become the battleground” over Catholicism and abortion.
I often discuss with my law students the didactic effects of law. I tell them that Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis once wrote that the law is “an omnipresent teacher.” Brandeis did not mean that some lawmakers wish the law would become a great teacher. Brandeis was reporting a fact: Like it or not, the law does teach people what is right and what is wrong, and any responsible lawmaker must take account of that fact. So too must anyone in charge of the “place where the Church does its thinking.”
Notre Dame is America’s Catholic icon. But that status brings with it an awesome responsibility: to give perspicuous and consistent witness to the truths of faith, including (most pertinently) the truth about innocent human life. A few weeks ago, Georgetown Law School honored the pro-abortion Catholic Joseph Biden. Did anybody notice? Georgetown did not do right, but it did comparatively little harm, because no one thinks of Georgetown the way many think of Notre Dame — as America’s flagship Catholic institution. And that is exactly how Notre Dame has asked the world to think of it.
Call it a “perfect storm” if you like. But politics, history, and the vanity of human wishes have combined to make this Sunday’s ceremony at Notre Dame a popular referendum about teaching authority in the American Catholic community. The Times’s Steinfels, Jesuit Fr. Tom Reese (former editor of America magazine), and many others are asking: Is anyone listening to the bishops? They cite Obama and Notre Dame as a test case. This reality shapes Father Jenkins’s responsibilities.
Some American Catholics fervently pray that the answer is “no.” They will be glad to report that the bishops, battered by the sex-abuse crisis, have finally overplayed their hand by taking on a duo as popular as Barack Obama and the University of Notre Dame. But this cannot be the position of Father Jenkins, or of anyone who believes in the promises of Christ as Catholics have understood them from time out of mind. If Catholic faith is true, then it is true that Catholic faith is inextricable from belief in apostolic succession, from Peter and James and Matthew all the way down to John D’Arcy.
In one of his many letters to Helvidius, Saint Jerome — the greatest biblical scholar in Church history — wrote apropos of an acquaintance’s elevation to the episcopacy: non facit ecclesiastica dignitas christianum. That is, “a position of honor in the Church does not make one a Christian.” Ascension to authority does not vouchsafe one’s beliefs. The position does not make one’s faith somehow inevitable. High office within the Church is not a ticket entitling the bearer to pursue one’s own agenda. Much less does it entitle one to the quiet enjoyment of power and prestige. We have seen some bishops, recently, who got this all wrong. They were rightly upbraided, finally. Their fall is a reminder of the truth about Catholic leadership.
The truth is that leadership in the Church requires profound humility before the demands of faith and unrelentingly abject service to the faithful. At supper on the night before he died, Jesus demonstrated for the first bishops — the apostles — what they must do in order to follow him. The man revered by Christians as the Son of God stooped to wash the feet of his disciples. Priests up to and including the pope reenact this ritual oblation every Holy Thursday evening to remind themselves of the oblations characteristic of Church leadership.
Notre Dame has realized its dream of preeminence by avid pursuit of prestige and by a cultivated indifference to those ordained by Christ to teach in his name. These two familiar features of Notre Dame’s business plan have been, as it were, the long arms of the ladder up which it has scrambled since 1967. Now, at the pinnacle, Notre Dame must kick that ladder aside, if it is to decide rightly this Sunday afternoon.
The question to be answered on Sunday is whether Notre Dame will choose to put its prestige and, yes, its de facto power to shape America’s Catholics at the service of the Church. Or will the university invest these gifts in its own agenda? It is indeed a choice between prestige and truth.
— Gerard V. Bradley is professor of law at the Univeristy of Notre Dame, and a former president of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars.