By Greg Erlandson
I spent spring break at a monastery contemplating the really big questions of existence, such as: Did Notre Dame have any idea what an uproar it would cause when it decided to invite our celebrity president to receive an honorary degree and give its commencement address?
The angry commentaries on both the left and the right have been almost breathtaking, but none of it should be a surprise.
A majority of Catholics voted for Barack Obama for a variety of reasons last November. Most probably did not give much thought to his position on abortion, but a few made very public affirmations of the candidate's willingness to dialogue and be flexible on such issues, despite his track record. The majority Catholic support for his election was seen by some of his Catholic supporters as the end to the single-issue mantra that has been wielded so effectively on the behalf of the Republican Party for the past 30 years.
On the other side, pro-life Catholics have felt betrayed by their co-religionists, and believe that their worst fears are now coming true. Pro-choice Catholic politicians and a variety of abortion advocates lard the administration's rolls. Obama immediately rolled back restrictions on funding abortion overseas. Other legislation could threaten Catholic hospitals and the consciences of Catholic medical personnel. But perhaps the most controversial action of all has been Obama's lifting of all restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research.
This is the context for Notre Dame's invitation, and the uproar not only hasn't subsided, it is growing in intensity.
While I defend in principle the right and duty of universities to allow alternative viewpoints to be articulated, studied and debated, in this particular instance Notre Dame appears to have intentionally chosen to award a provocative honor at a provocative time.
It has taken a position directly contrary to the express guidelines of the U.S. bishops regarding honors and awards being given to abortion supporters, and it has done so at exactly the moment when the bishops have gone to some effort to challenge the Obama administration on the life issues. While Notre Dame professes to be interested in conducting a dialogue with Obama, it is not clear what such a dialogue would look like, or for that matter what each party considers real dialogue, much less who appointed the school to play this role.
Notre Dame, in fact, has decided to go its own way. It is a bit like the state of Indiana deciding that it would follow its own foreign policy separate from the United States. Unilaterally and accountable to no one other than its Board of Trust, Notre Dame has decided that it alone determines what relationship it should have with Obama or with any other politician holding positions contrary to Church teaching.
What we now know is that the bishops have very little, if any, sway over Catholic universities. Nor, apparently, do the religious orders that founded them, if we are to believe the assertions of the head of the Holy Cross order. The universities have intentionally migrated control of the institutions to lay-dominated boards, and they are not accountable to any ecclesial authority, even as they profess dedication to the values and principles of the Church.
This in turn raises truly profound questions: When we say a university is Catholic, what does that mean, and who makes that determination? To whom is the university accountable for affirming its Catholicity? How does it measure its own success at forming Catholic identity, and how does the Church measure that success?
I ended my monastic reflection feeling a bit of perverse gratitude to Notre Dame. This controversy will not have been wasted if it forces Catholics to address some of the larger issues of Catholic identity, authority and academic freedom. This should be done soberly and with proper respect for the roles involved, but we have come to a crossroads when the goals of the academic institution and the Church it professes to serve are at cross purposes.
Greg Erlandson is the president and publisher of OSV.
Please note: Comments left online may be considered for publication in the Letters to the Editor section of OSV Newsweekly.
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