Defend, Preserve, Advance! The Pope to Catholics

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

On Thursday, Pope Francis challenged the leadership of the University of Notre Dame to be faithful to Church teaching, to be uncompromising witnesses to the faith it is their mission to “defend, preserve and advance.” As a Catholic school and a cultural institution, they have tremendous opportunity to evangelize in the classroom, stadium, and culture — campus and way beyond. The school is in an especially unique position, pregnant with missionary possibilities. And as I mentioned yesterday, the pope’s words were a powerful statement to all in Catholic education and all who profess to be Catholic about mission and opportunity and Gospel mandate.

The pope also had clear words on freedom, speaking of things we are called to defend, preserve, and advance. What are we doing with our freedom? What are we doing about government trying to narrow it?

I asked a few members of the Notre Dame community and other leaders in Catholic education for their reaction to what the pope had to say.

Patrick Deneen, a professor of political science at Notre Dame who left Georgetown University because he had more hope in Notre Dame’s mission, told me he was delighted by the pope’s message:

I think all of us at Notre Dame are deeply grateful and gratified for the encouraging and hopeful words of Pope Francis in his praise of the contributions of Our Lady’s University to the Church in America and the critical role it has to play in the new evangelization. But we should also recognize the challenge he lays down to us, in what he recognizes to be “the changed circumstances of the twenty-first century.” There are at least two main challenges that we keenly experience on this campus and as a Church as a whole. First, there has been the discernible change of an increasingly secular governing elite that has become emboldened in a frontal challenge against the Church’s witness and teachings. On the same day that Pope Francis’s statement was publicized, members of the university community were given notice that we would be receiving new health ID cards for “women’s preventive services.” While Notre Dame has admirably fought the HHS Mandate in the courts — and was handed down a highly dubious refusal for a stay by Judge Philip Simon of the Seventh Circuit — the university also decided to comply with the Mandate and even officially adopted the deceptive language of “women’s preventive services” in their official missive, contrary to the statements of the Bishops who have decried this misleading euphemism. Pope Francis quite clearly recognizes this profound challenge to Catholic institutions such as Notre Dame, and calls upon us to “continue to offer unambiguous testimony…, especially in the face of efforts, from whatever quarter, to dilute that indispensable witness.”

Second, the pope’s words came on the heels of Notre Dame’s announcement of plans for a $400 renovation to the football stadium. Modern universities are expensive undertakings, and Notre Dame is blessed with devoted and generous alumni and supporters. There is the ever-present danger that the university too easily adopts the standards of the world as the marker of its success. A second challenge the university faces as it rightly continues to invest its treasure, is that it keep at the forefront of all its activities its “missionary discipleship,” every wary that its end is not growth or wealth, but properly to orient our students and all whose lives the university touches toward the truth of the Gospels and the salvation of souls. We need constantly to be wary of falling into the worldliness of so many of today’s universities that model to their students that the main aim and end of human life is the pursuit of wealth and the worship of Mammon. 

In at least these two ways — resisting the false gods of libertinism offered by the State and the Market — as Pope Francis exhorted the Fighting Irish, we serve the Church and the Faith — “to defend it, to preserve it, and to advance it!”

O. Carter Snead is director of the Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame and a professor of Law there. I moderated an Americans United for Life panel he was on last week during the March for Life. He was one of 400 from Notre Dame who made it to Washington, D.C., despite the snow (600 were planning on participating, but not all the scheduled buses made it).

Snead told me:

The Holy Father’s words are a powerful reminder to all of us who love and work for the Blessed Mother’s university of our shared duty to help Notre Dame to fulfill its mission as an indispensable, countercultural force within the community of elite universities and a voice for authentic human freedom and dignity in the great global public square. At the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture, this is the key animating goal of all that we do, namely, to share the richness of the Catholic moral and intellectual tradition on campus, and to bring the university’s voice into the academic and public conversations concerning the most complex and pressing matters of ethics, public policy, and culture facing the world today.

As Pope Francis observes, to pursue its mission, Notre Dame (as part of the Catholic Church) needs the freedom to organize and conduct the work of the university in a manner that reflects the truths that it affirms. It’s clear that the HHS contraceptive/abortifacient mandate threatens to “dilute [Notre Dame’s] indispensable witness” by conscripting its employee and student health plans into serving as the mechanism to facilitate the distribution of drugs and services to which the university objects. Thus, the Holy Father’s words strike me as a timely and profound encouragement to Notre Dame in its continuing efforts to defend its religious liberty in court.

Another Notre Dame law professor, Gerry Bradley, comments in Bench Memos here.

Stephen D. Minnis is the president of Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. He read the pope’s message as a call to authenticity. He tells National Review Online:


Pope Francis’ clear message to the Catholics in academia is that Catholic identity matters. Catholic identity can’t just be a service project — it has to be something that permeates your student life office, your residence life office and your faculty offices — including the sciences.

Pope Francis in his remarks points to a key part of his most recent document where he says, for universities, proclaiming the Gospel message to different cultures also means proclaiming it to cultures in our midst: professionals, the scientific community and academia. He wants universities fully credible and fully Catholic, both. This is easier said than done, but it absolutely vital for us to do this: We need to be great colleges, and great Catholics. If we do one but not the other, we are not doing our job.

Patrick Reilly is president of the Cardinal Newman Society, which works to promote and defend faithful Catholic education (full disclosure: I currently serve on its board).

The media narrative has been that Pope Francis is not so concerned about fidelity to Catholic teaching, and he has had little to say about Catholic education since his installation. So it’s quite significant that he so pointedly calls on Notre Dame to defend its original Catholic mission and to adhere to Catholic moral doctrine, even urging Notre Dame to “missionary discipleship.”

It’s not his style — nor was it that of Pope Benedict or John Paul II — to publicly scold. But in calling a Catholic university to be faithfully and proudly Catholic, it would appear that Pope Francis recognizes what has been lacking at Notre Dame. And the call to resist pressures to secularize “from whatever quarter” seems to acknowledge that such pressures come from within Notre Dame as well as from without.

This sends a clear message to the rest of Catholic colleges, even all Catholic schools: not only is Catholic identity key to authentic Catholic education, but educators are called “to defend it, to preserve it and to advance it!”

Fr. Wilson D. Miscamble, CSC, is a Holy Cross priest and professor of history at Notre Dame. He tells me:

I read the Holy Father’s address to the Notre Dame trustees with deep gratitude. He has placed before the Notre Dame leadership is a typically pastoral manner a powerful call for Notre Dame (and all Catholic universities) to uphold an “uncompromising witness . . . to the Church’s moral teaching and in defense of her freedom.” He also calls Notre Dame to “offer unambiguous testimony . . . of its foundational Catholic identity.” He challenges Notre Dame to defend and preserve and to advance this truly Catholic identity and there is much to be done in that regard.

All those who love Notre Dame and know of her potential for good must hope that the leadership of Notre Dame hears these words and takes them fully to heart. The present Notre Dame leadership seems more interested, however, in making announcements of new buildings than in playing a strong role in defense of the Church’s freedoms. The tepid way in which Notre Dame acquiesced with the Obamacare provisions and authorized its health insurance administrator to implement the HHS Mandate gives notable evidence of that.

“Perhaps Pope Francis’s words might encourage Notre Dame to take on some genuine leadership on the religious-liberty issue,” Fr. Miscamble concluded. “Given Notre Dame’s national reputation and considerable resources it should be leading on this issue and not leaving it to the Little Sisters of the Poor.”

In no small way, Pope Francis asks, directly this week: What are we doing today in America with our freedom and opportunities? As Fr. Miscamble points to, the Little Sisters of the Poor might be the most free among us — even with their vows, even being in court. They are women boldly and humbly exercising their freedom of choice, thank you very much! They set an example, as they defend, preserve, and advance freedom!


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