Pope Francis Speaks to Notre Dame about Uncompromising Christian Witness and Religious Freedom

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

This morning in Rome, Pope Francis met with a delegation from the University of Notre Dame. Coinciding with Catholic Schools Week here in the U.S., his remarks to the representatives of the American university is a call to mission for Catholic education.

He said, in part:

The vision which guided Father Edward Sorin and the first religious of the Congregation of Holy Cross in establishing the University of Notre Dame du Lac remains, in the changed circumstances of the twenty-first century, central to the University’s distinctive identity and its service to the Church and American society. In my recent Apostolic Exhortation on the Joy of the Gospel, I stressed the missionary dimension of Christian discipleship, which needs to be evident in the lives of individuals and in the workings of each of the Church’s institutions. This commitment to “missionary discipleship” ought to be reflected in a special way in Catholic universities (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, 132-134), which by their very nature are committed to demonstrating the harmony of faith and reason and the relevance of the Christian message for a full and authentically human life. Essential in this regard is the uncompromising witness of Catholic universities to the Church’s moral teaching, and the defense of her freedom, precisely in and through her institutions, to uphold that teaching as authoritatively proclaimed by the magisterium of her pastors. It is my hope that the University of Notre Dame will continue to offer unambiguous testimony to this aspect of its foundational Catholic identity, especially in the face of efforts, from whatever quarter, to dilute that indispensable witness.

You might remember Evangelii Gaudium – that was that controversial document of late last year – mostly controversial because of what the media chose to report on, largely out of an important fuller, radical context.

His message to Notre Dame, a school whose struggles with Catholic identity on campus and the broader culture are not breaking news to NRO readers, comes just under two months before the pope is set to meet the president of the United States. This is a president, of course, who was given a forum to speak at Notre Dame during his first year in office – one much protested, as many will recall – at which time he pledged to respect conscience rights in his pending health-care law. As readers here well know, he did not respect the religious liberty of those opposed to abortion, contraception, and sterilization for holistic moral reasons, and has lied, accused others of lying in dismissing concerns, and brought about a state of affairs where the Little Sisters of the Poor, among others, have had to seek Supreme Court and other judicial help in protecting their religious freedom.

Notice the pope’s language about uncompromising witness — Pope Francis challenges and encourages. At a time when Notre Dame has most recently lost in court in its battle with the Department of Health and Human Services over Obamacare’s so-called contraceptive mandate’s assault on religious liberty, the pope reminds Catholic universities of their obligations as teachers and leaders, as disciples and civic leaders. 

Pope Francis is wildly popular — which makes some nervous and annoyed and others overjoyed and expectant. Whatever the coverage, look at the whole message. It is one of uncompromising, radical witness.

(For some examples of bright lights of Catholic education at Notre Dame see here and here and here and here.)

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