As my friend and colleague Gerard Bradley noted (along with others) the other day, Pope Francis recently welcomed and addressed a group from the University of Notre Dame, where Professor Bradley and I teach. In the course of his meeting and conversation with the university’s president Father John Jenkins and its Board of Trustees, the Holy Father thanked the Notre Dame community for its “outstanding contribution to the Church in [the United States] through its commitment to the religious education of the young and to serious scholarship inspired by confidence in the harmony of faith and reason and in the pursuit of truth and virtue.” More particularly, he expressed his gratitude for the “commitment which [Notre Dame] has shown over the years to supporting and strengthening Catholic elementary and secondary school education,” a commitment that is probably expressed most visibly through the wonderful work of the Alliance for Catholic Education (A.C.E.).
After emphasizing the “mission dimension of Christian discipleship,” the Holy Father turned to the particular mission of Catholic universities, and said:
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. And this is important: its identity, as it was intended from the beginning. To defend it, to preserve it and to advance it!
His prepared remarks then end with a request to his “dear friends” for their prayers and with his blessing.
It seems clear that this was a happy and uplifting occasion, at which the Holy Father generously expressed sincere gratitude and support for the University of Notre Dame’s work and mission. What’s more, he indicated his clear-eyed appreciation for the fact that the university confronts challenges, in the form of “efforts . . . to dilute [its] indispensable witness.” Surfing around the more “conservative” sectors of the Catholic blogosphere, though, one might get the impression that Pope Francis had called the university on the carpet for a Petrine scolding, or for a finger-wagging session dedicated to chastising Notre Dame for its various failings, or for marching orders regarding the handling of the university’s lawsuit challenging the HHS contraception-coverage mandate. It appears that many who have already concluded — because of Land O’ Lakes, or President Obama’s honorary degree, or the edgy statements of a particular faculty member, or the ups and downs of the football team’s fortunes — that Notre Dame is a “Catholic in name only” sell-out were quick to imagine that the pope was endorsing all the particulars of their indictments of the Irish.
I realize that the “oh, snap!” interpretation of the pope’s address to Notre Dame’s president and trustees is useful to some fundraising efforts and provides some an opportunity for catharsis and venting. But, it is not a plausible interpretation. The pope expressed (appropriate and warranted) gratitude and praise and also (appropriate and warranted) caution. To the extent he was being critical, the object of his criticism is not the university for its alleged half-stepping but those “quarter[s]” — such as the United States Department of Health and Human Services — that are trying to undermine and dilute Catholic universities’ and institutions’ “uncompromising witness” and commitment to “missionary discipleship.”
Notre Dame — like all Catholic institutions and like all Catholics — has sometimes fallen short and no doubt will again. It is sometimes defensive where it should be proud, and proud when it should be self-critical. It is not all that it purports to be, aspires to be, and should be. Still, it matters, and Catholics should join the Holy Father in both affirming the university’s efforts to act with integrity and in accord with its Catholic mission and supporting the university in the face of threats to that mission. We will then be in a stronger position to challenge the university to better be, in Father Edward Sorin’s words, a “powerful force for good” and, in Pope Francis’s, an “indispensable witness,” a research university that is great precisely because it is distinctively, authentically, pervasively, and interestingly Catholic.
— Richard W. Garnett is professor of law and concurrent professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame and director of the Program on Church, State & Society.