That this fact of 21st-century American Catholic life makes things difficult for Catholic tribal Democrats is undeniable. But efforts to dilute the weight and density of that cultural marker by, among others, Notre Dame faculty who find in Barack Obama the living embodiment of Catholic social doctrine now look ever more farcical, as indeed they seemed highly implausible before the administration’s policies began to crumble. (Republicans tempted to gloat here should be very careful: Catholics determined to strengthen, not dilute, Catholic identity in Catholic institutions will turn their fire on squishy members of the GOP just as readily as fire has been turned on Democrats.)
Irrespective of the politics involved, though, what is really disturbing about all this from a Catholic point of view is just how out-of-it Notre Dame’s leadership seems to be. The administration and board of a university that has long imagined itself on the cutting edge of Catholic culture in the United States seem to have completely missed the great sea-change that has taken place in the public life of U.S. Catholics since Roe v. Wade, Blessed John Paul II, and the emergence of the pro-life cause as the prime, although surely not sole, indicator of Catholic seriousness amidst the sundry contentions of the public square.
A month or so before the Martino affair broke, the Notre Dame faculty senate voted down a proposed resolution commending the president, Father Jenkins, for his efforts to strengthen Notre Dame’s pro-life commitment in the wake of the Obama commencement. That was weird enough. But windy faculty senates with little real power often do weird things. What is so striking about the Martino case, however, is that it makes clear that Father Jenkins’s modest efforts to demonstrate the university’s pro-life commitment since the 2009 Obama commencement have been largely in vain. Things have gotten worse, not better, since 2009.
If an Emily’s List contributor is considered a fit member of Notre Dame’s board of trustees by, among others, members of the religious congregation that founded Notre Dame, and if the Notre Dame board chairman flails about defending such a decision by suggesting that the nominee in question is an ideal Domer trustee, then the Catholic learning curve in South Bend remains a steep one.
— George Weigel is distinguished senior fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.