Politics & Policy

Prestige or Truth?

The challenge facing Notre Dame.

On Sunday, Barack Obama will give the commencement address at Notre Dame. He is also going to receive an honorary doctorate of laws. The Rev. John Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president and one of the first friends I made at the university, will present it to him.

Three hundred thousand Catholics have signed petitions criticizing the university. Over $8 million in donations has been withheld in protest. Local bishop John D’Arcy is boycotting the commencement. Scores of other bishops have spoken out against honoring Obama, because the president has (in Bishop D’Arcy’s words) “reaffirmed, and has now placed in public policy, his long-stated unwillingness to hold human life as sacred.” D’Arcy suggested that Notre Dame had chosen “prestige over truth.”

Many people have asked me since the Obama visit was announced on March 20: What’s happened to Notre Dame?

The answer is that nothing has happened to Notre Dame. The decision to honor Obama and the way the university has handled the fallout have been completely in character. This place is not your grandpa’s Notre Dame, to be sure. But it is certainly the place where I began teaching law in 1992.

Sunday is nonetheless going to be a defining moment for Notre Dame. The university — by and through Father Jenkins — will have made a fateful choice, its most important decision during my 17 years here and one that will greatly affect American Catholicism as a whole.

Let me explain.

It is easy to see the appeal of Obama to Notre Dame. Our country has one president, and he is giving only three commencement speeches this year. One is traditionally at a service academy; this year, at Annapolis. Notre Dame (along with Arizona State) won the prize coveted by almost every university.

So far, Bishop D’Arcy seems to be on the right track: Notre Dame chose prestige.

That is nothing new. Prestige — as measured by U.S. News rankings, academic peer recognition, NIH grants, endowment size, New York Times mentions — has been the gold standard at Notre Dame as long as I have been here. Notre Dame’s Catholic identity has largely become the preserve of campus ministry and, to some extent, of the rules governing student life. On the academic side — in research, teaching, publishing, and the hiring and retention of faculty — the truths of the Catholic faith are missing in action. Notre Dame’s central academic aspiration has nothing to do with Catholicism. It is the Association of American Universities, a group of 62 American research schools — none of them Catholic — that Notre Dame is desperate to join.

Notre Dame’s response to criticism about Obama has been characteristically self-referential and polemical. In his March 20 announcement, for example, Father Jenkins said that “presidents from both parties have come to Notre Dame for decades to speak to our graduates.” President Obama will follow, Jenkins says, “in this long tradition.”

But this “tradition” is not as robust as Father Jenkins suggests. George Bush spoke at commencement but Bill Clinton never did, making it one president in the last 17 years. Traditions are not, in any event, self-perpetuating. They are consciously renewed by the free choices of those who maintain them. Notre Dame has chosen to end many valued traditions since I came here, often to keep pace with academic peers. It could choose to end this one.

In a more recent talk to alumni, Father Jenkins shifted the focus away from Obama altogether. He said that “the university also has a tradition of expressing respect for the political order by offering the elected leader of our nation an honorary degree.”

A certain patriotism is appropriately expressed by any Catholic institution, Notre Dame included. But patriotism does not mean that the winner of 270 electoral votes — whoever it turns out to be — is deserving of honors at a Catholic institution. This is to give Caesar more than is rightly his due; it is to give Caesar some of what is God’s.

Father Jenkins says, too, that prior presidential speakers had “a wide range of views” and that we (Notre Dame) “certainly don’t endorse all” of them. President Obama’s case is “similar.” Notre Dame does not endorse all of his views, especially, Jenkins said, those concerning human life.

But not all disagreements are created equal. Why doesn’t full-throttle support for a grave injustice such as abortion disqualify one from university honors? I am confident that no one — not even a high-office holder — who publicly embraced a less respectable injustice, such as racism or anti-Semitism, would be fêted here. In moral truth if not in civil law, lethal discrimination against the unborn is at least as monstrous.

Even assuming (but not agreeing) that all the prior presidential honors were good ideas, another fact distinguishes this president from his predecessors: The U.S. bishops declared in 2004 that no public figure who supports abortion may be honored by a Catholic institution. This criticism has been made most acutely by former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican and long-time Harvard Law professor Mary Ann Glendon. Glendon was to receive the Laetare Medal at commencement, and to deliver her own address to the graduates. She declined the medal, however, stating in a letter to Jenkins that “I am at a loss to understand why a Catholic university should disrespect” the bishops’directive by honoring Obama.

There is nothing new here, either. Legendary Notre Dame president Fr. Theodore Hesburgh famously declared Notre Dame’s independence from “ecclesiastical” “authority” in 1967. Even on matters remotely connected to academic function — if they are connected at all — Notre Dame has not abided Bishop D’Arcy’s pastoral interventions. When he criticized the Queer Film Festival on campus as morally toxic, university spokesman Matthew Storin said that Notre Dame had “great respect and affection” for D’Arcy. But the faculty and administration had a different idea, Storin said, of “academic freedom.” When Bishop D’Arcy objected to the campus production of The Vagina Monologues as odious, Jenkins called him a “friend” whose advice he welcomed. Notre Dame staged the play.

I rehearse these details neither for the sake of criticism nor to embarrass anybody. I rehearse them to show that Notre Dame’s attempts to portray honoring Obama as a decision about something other than honoring Obama fail. Notre Dame did not on March 20 announce a decision to continue a tradition or to be non-partisan or to exhibit its patriotic feelings. Notre Dame’s decision had nothing to do with academic freedom. It will not do to say that Notre Dame does as Notre Dame did. Notre Dame freely chose to honor Barack Obama at this year’s commencement. It is unworthy of the university to suggest otherwise.

I rehearse these details for another reason. They point to the truth that Notre Dame’s decision to honor Obama was, nonetheless, probably taken too casually and unreflectively, even as a no-brainer: Of course we want the president to come to our graduation. Where do we sign?”

Notre Dame could not have expected the tidal wave of criticism it has received. Notre Dame did not foresee that its decision would elicit 60 (and counting) episcopal rebukes, that it would effectively pit the university against the Church’s teachers. Notre Dame could not have expected that its decision would become a national referendum, not only on the morality of abortion, but on whether — as some Catholic commentators say — any American Catholics are listening to the bishops. And whether any of them should.

I rehearse these details, you can now see, because this whole episode has taken on a momentous life of its own. It has outrun Notre Dame’s original understanding of what was at stake. The stakes on the table now were not there on March 20. The matters at hand now were not then known. Notre Dame now faces a new and different decision, one that is not determined by anything it decided on or about March 20. It is not quite a do-over, but it is close to that — a fresh opportunity to make things right. Nothing but the free choice of the responsible university officials — mainly, at this late juncture, Father Jenkins — will settle it. And he should seize this second chance by withholding the honorary degree from President Obama on Sunday afternoon.

Why? What is at stake now? What decision does Notre Dame face on Sunday?

At the heart of the matter is the immorality — the sin — of scandal. Scandal is, basically, leading others into sin, in this case by clouding others’ understanding of the truth about abortion. Here, we are talking about the scandalous effects portended by America’s leading Catholic institution when it honors the most pro-abortion president in history. The atmosphere at graduation will be festive, and a packed house will rock it with a standing ovation for Obama. Notre Dame dignitaries and faculty will be photographed beaming as Obama extends his hand to a smiling Jenkins. It will be a visual spectacle of the first order.

This celebration will weaken the belief of some present that abortion is always wrong. For some and perhaps for many, what was before the commencement a conviction that abortion is objectively immoral will become a conviction after that “abortion is wrong for me (I think), but there is reasonable disagreement about that, and everyone has to make that decision for herself, or himself.”

The message about abortion that those present will take away is just a tiny fraction of what is at stake. To get a full accounting of the scandal on offer, one must consider, too, all those elsewhere who witness or hear about events here on Sunday. This number may include many million American Catholics. For it is likely that Obama’s Notre Dame appearance will lead the national news on Sunday night, and that it will be in the headlines Monday morning. The meaning and consequences of the episode will be staples of cable and magazine reporting for weeks, if not for months. Scholars will write about it for years.

One must then multiply this effect exponentially. If Notre Dame goes ahead as planned, it will weaken Catholics’ commitment, not just to the truth about abortion, but to all those propositions that Catholics hold as true on the basis, even partially, of authority.

This is not to say that every Catholic scandalized by Notre Dame’s actions will soon abandon the entire package of Catholic beliefs. It is rather that, given the constancy of Church teaching on abortion and the university’s defiance of the whole body of bishops, Notre Dame would surely, even if reluctantly, weaken a linchpin of the whole of Catholic faith.

Note very well: There is more at stake than the coherence and strength of what people affirm. That is important enough, as important as the content of one’s religious faith. Abortion is an action item too. If even one pregnant woman, perhaps an unmarried senior graduating from Notre Dame on Sunday, goes wobbly on the truth about the morality of abortion, the consequences will extend far beyond intellectual integrity.

What is at stake for Notre Dame’s decision on Sunday? The answer to that question must also reckon frankly with Notre Dame’s bold aspiration to prominence and its astounding success at achieving it. Notre Dame has long described itself as the “place where the Church does its thinking.” A lot of people now believe it. Peter Steinfels wrote in last Saturday’s New York Times that “no wonder that Notre Dame, a venerable symbol of American Catholic identity, has become the battleground” over Catholicism and abortion.

I often discuss with my law students the didactic effects of law. I tell them that Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis once wrote that the law is “an omnipresent teacher.” Brandeis did not mean that some lawmakers wish the law would become a great teacher. Brandeis was reporting a fact: Like it or not, the law does teach people what is right and what is wrong, and any responsible lawmaker must take account of that fact. So too must anyone in charge of the “place where the Church does its thinking.”

Notre Dame is America’s Catholic icon. But that status brings with it an awesome responsibility: to give perspicuous and consistent witness to the truths of faith, including (most pertinently) the truth about innocent human life. A few weeks ago, Georgetown Law School honored the pro-abortion Catholic Joseph Biden. Did anybody notice? Georgetown did not do right, but it did comparatively little harm, because no one thinks of Georgetown the way many think of Notre Dame — as America’s flagship Catholic institution. And that is exactly how Notre Dame has asked the world to think of it.

Call it a “perfect storm” if you like. But politics, history, and the vanity of human wishes have combined to make this Sunday’s ceremony at Notre Dame a popular referendum about teaching authority in the American Catholic community. The Times’s Steinfels, Jesuit Fr. Tom Reese (former editor of America magazine), and many others are asking: Is anyone listening to the bishops? They cite Obama and Notre Dame as a test case. This reality shapes Father Jenkins’s responsibilities.

Some American Catholics fervently pray that the answer is “no.” They will be glad to report that the bishops, battered by the sex-abuse crisis, have finally overplayed their hand by taking on a duo as popular as Barack Obama and the University of Notre Dame. But this cannot be the position of Father Jenkins, or of anyone who believes in the promises of Christ as Catholics have understood them from time out of mind. If Catholic faith is true, then it is true that Catholic faith is inextricable from belief in apostolic succession, from Peter and James and Matthew all the way down to John D’Arcy.

In one of his many letters to Helvidius, Saint Jerome — the greatest biblical scholar in Church history — wrote apropos of an acquaintance’s elevation to the episcopacy: non facit ecclesiastica dignitas christianum. That is, “a position of honor in the Church does not make one a Christian.” Ascension to authority does not vouchsafe one’s beliefs. The position does not make one’s faith somehow inevitable. High office within the Church is not a ticket entitling the bearer to pursue one’s own agenda. Much less does it entitle one to the quiet enjoyment of power and prestige. We have seen some bishops, recently, who got this all wrong. They were rightly upbraided, finally. Their fall is a reminder of the truth about Catholic leadership.

The truth is that leadership in the Church requires profound humility before the demands of faith and unrelentingly abject service to the faithful. At supper on the night before he died, Jesus demonstrated for the first bishops — the apostles — what they must do in order to follow him. The man revered by Christians as the Son of God stooped to wash the feet of his disciples. Priests up to and including the pope reenact this ritual oblation every Holy Thursday evening to remind themselves of the oblations characteristic of Church leadership.

Notre Dame has realized its dream of preeminence by avid pursuit of prestige and by a cultivated indifference to those ordained by Christ to teach in his name. These two familiar features of Notre Dame’s business plan have been, as it were, the long arms of the ladder up which it has scrambled since 1967. Now, at the pinnacle, Notre Dame must kick that ladder aside, if it is to decide rightly this Sunday afternoon.

The question to be answered on Sunday is whether Notre Dame will choose to put its prestige and, yes, its de facto power to shape America’s Catholics at the service of the Church. Or will the university invest these gifts in its own agenda? It is indeed a choice between prestige and truth.

— Gerard V. Bradley is  professor of law at the Univeristy of Notre Dame, and a former president of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars.

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