By John Norton
It's only May, but it's a pretty safe bet that in anybody's roundup of the top 10 U.S. Catholic stories of 2009, the University of Notre Dame's commencement controversy will feature near the top.
The story is emblematic, as OSV contributing editor Russell Shaw wrote in a recent column, of a tension in the Catholic Church in the United States that dates back at least a century. It wasn't so long ago that Catholics felt -- and were -- on the outside of the U.S. mainstream. The drive to achieve acceptance and credibility -- including by the founder of this newspaper, Archbishop John F. Noll, and other prelates like Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen -- means navigating between the competing goods of assimilation and counterculturalism. (For those who wonder why I say assimilation can be a good, consider the huge impact the Church's systems of health care and education have made in the life of this country. None of that would have been possible if Catholics simply had remained cultural outsiders.)
"The emergence of legalized abortion makes that choice even more demanding," Shaw notes. "But Notre Dame's invitation to Obama comes from the assimilationist heart of Catholic Americanism. The outrage it has produced is counterculturalism's response. However this turns out, the argument will go on."
It is only fair and charitable to assume the best motives of Notre Dame's leadership, in light of this context: Their goal was to make sure Catholicism and Catholic values have a seat at the table of U.S. political life.
But given the enormous reaction to the decision from Catholic faithful (some 350,000 signed an online petition), bishops (nearing 50 at press time who spoke out against it) and perhaps most significantly, ND donors (one group tallied $8.2 million in lost donations over the controversy), this may turn out to be a watershed moment in the history of Catholicism in America.
And there's also been heightened scrutiny of other Catholic schools, with controversy rearing in recent weeks over decisions by Georgetown University, Xavier University and Providence College.
Ever since the famous 1967 statement by Catholic educators (meeting in Land O'Lakes, Wis., and led by Notre Dame's president) that declared Catholic universities' independence from Church authority, some of our universities have felt little incentive to engage the broader Church -- starting with the local bishop -- on issues of Catholic identity and participation in the public square.
We hope that will now change. As the president of the U.S. bishops' conference has said, Notre Dame's big mistake was acting in an un-Catholic way, acting outside the Catholic community.
I look forward to hearing from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.