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The University of Notre Dame’s ongoing confusions


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George Weigel

A week or so into the controversy, it seemed clear to all except the university’s board chairman and its president, Fr. John Jenkins, that Ms. Martino was unsalvageable: Either Notre Dame had a significant donor to an aggressive pro-abortion lobby among its trustees, or it had a board member whose judgment in making donations “on the basis of a recommendation from others” (as Notebaert put it to McGurn) raised severe questions about her competence to serve the university and its Catholic mission. Yet the dissembling continued and the implications of it for Notre Dame’s governance were briskly identified on June 4 by Fr. Wilson Miscamble, CSC, a distinguished diplomatic historian on the Notre Dame faculty.

In an address to a group of Notre Dame alumni concerned about the university’s Catholic identity, Miscamble said that board chairman Notebaert seemed “to have supplanted Fr. Jenkins in determining university policy” in the Martino affair. Then Miscamble, an Australian given to plain talking, cut to the chase: “If [Notebaert] can’t understand the damage that an appointment like this does to Notre Dame’s credibility and reputation as a Catholic university, then his credentials and capabilities to lead the board must surely be questioned.” And lest he be thought excessively clerical in calling out a lay board chairman, Father Miscamble immediately went on to lament the six members of his own religious order, the Congregation of the Holy Cross, who had acquiesced in Ms. Martino’s appointment.

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After Father Jenkins had met with Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne–South Bend, this sad affair came to a formal end on June 8 when Ms. Martino resigned from the Notre Dame board, telling the Chicago Tribune that “the current controversy doesn’t allow me to be effective.” Yet the fallout from the Martino affair continues, and one finds some rather depressing indicators about Notre Dame’s future while sifting through the wreckage.

At no point during the controversy did the formidable Notre Dame publicity machine do the obvious and honorable thing: admit that due diligence had not been done; admit that a serious mistake had been made and that the mistake was deeply regretted; then state that Ms. Martino had been asked to remove herself from the board. Those watching from a distance could only conclude that Ms. Martino, Mr. Notebaert, and perhaps Father Jenkins simply did not understand what the fuss was about, and yielded only under unbearable pressure. That impression was strengthened by the affair’s untoward end game, which Father Miscamble described in a public statement after the Martino resignation:

I am grateful that Mrs. Martino had the decency to resign from the Board of Trustees but very disappointed that she included no apology in her statement for her sad record of donations to Emily’s List and other virulently pro-abortion PACs like Illinois State Personal PAC. I am further disappointed by the very limited press release from the University of Notre Dame and by the remarks of the board chairman, Mr. Richard Notebaert. He neither gives an apology for his earlier misleading statements concerning Mrs. Martino’s donations nor expresses regret for his failure to vet this appointment with appropriate diligence. Further, he gives no assurance that contributing in any way to explicitly “pro-choice” organizations in incompatible with service on the Notre Dame Board of Trustees.

The obtuseness displayed by the university administration and board chairman over the past two weeks suggests that neither the administration nor the board has learned the primary lesson it should have learned from the controversy over the Obama commencement in 2009: that an unambiguous, indeed happily robust, pro-life position, embodied in action and not just in abstract declarations of adhesion to Catholic teaching, is now the cultural marker of seriousness about Catholic identity in the American public square.



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