As summer fades on the beautiful campus by the lake where the young Holy Cross priest Father Edward Sorin pitched his camp 177 years ago and began his great adventure, we must clarify the situation that so sundered the Church last spring.

It is not about President Barack Obama. He will do some good things as president and other things with which, as Catholics, we will strongly disagree. It is ever so among presidents, and most political leaders.

It is not about Democrats vs. Republicans, nor was it a replay of the general election.

It is not about whether it is appropriate for the president of the United States to speak at the University of Notre Dame or any great Catholic university on the pressing issues of the day. This is what universities do. No bishop should try to prevent that. Nor is it about "sectarian Catholicism," as some commentators termed the response of the faithful, so intense and widespread.

Public witness

Pope Benedict XVI, himself a former university professor, made his position clear when he spoke to Catholic educators in Washington, D.C., last year: "Teachers and administrators, whether in universities or schools, have the duty and privilege to ensure that students receive instruction in Catholic doctrine and practice. This requires that public witness to the way of Christ, as found in the Gospel and upheld by the Church's magisterium, shapes all aspects of an institution's life, both inside and outside the classroom."

In its decision to give its highest honor to a president who has repeatedly opposed even the smallest legal protection of the child in the womb, did Notre Dame surrender the responsibility that Pope Benedict believes Catholic universities have to give public witness to the truths revealed by God and taught by the Church?

Another serious question of witness and moral responsibility before the Notre Dame administration concerns its sponsorship over several years of a sad and immoral play, offensive to the dignity of women, which many call pornographic, and which an increasing number of Catholic universities have cancelled.

Failure to dialogue

Although he spoke eloquently about the importance of dialogue with the president of the United States, Notre Dame president Father John Jenkins chose not to dialogue with his bishop on these two matters, both pastoral, and both with serious ramifications for the care of souls, which is the core responsibility of the local bishop. Both decisions were shared with me after they were made, and in the case of the honorary degree, after President Obama had accepted.

The failure to dialogue with the bishop brings a second series of questions. What is the relationship of the Catholic university to the local bishop? No relationship? Someone who occasionally offers Mass? Someone who sits on the platform at graduation? Or is the bishop the teacher in the diocese, responsible for souls, including the souls of students? Does the responsibility of the bishop to teach, to govern and to sanctify end at the gate of the university? In the spirit of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, which places the primary responsibility on the institution, I am proposing these questions for the university.

Professor John Cavadini, chair of Notre Dame's theology department, has addressed the questions about the relationship of the university and the bishop in an especially insightful manner: "The statement of our [university] president barely mentions the Church. It is as though the mere mention of a relationship with the Church has become so alien to our ways of thinking and so offensive to our quest for a disembodied 'excellence' that it has become impolite to mention it at all. There is no Catholic identity apart from the affiliation with the Church. And again, I do not mean an imaginary Church we sometimes might wish existed, but [as the Second Vatican Council states] the concrete, visible communion of 'hierarchic and charismatic gifts ... at once holy and always in need of purification,' in which 'each bishop represents his own church and all of [the bishops] together with the pope represent the whole Church.'"

It has been a great privilege and a source of joy to be associated with Notre Dame in the past 24 years as bishop. In so many ways, it is a splendid place. Part of this is because of the exemplary young men and women who come there from throughout the country. It is also because of its great spiritual traditions. The lines of young people preparing to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, the Masses in the residence halls, the prayerful liturgy at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart and the service of so many young people before and after graduation, in Catholic education and catechetics, and in service to the poor in this country and overseas, is a credit to the university and a source of great hope. The theology department has grown in academic excellence over the years, strengthened by the successful recruiting of professors, outstanding in scholarship, in their knowledge of the tradition, and in their own living of the Catholic faith. This growth is well known to Pope Benedict. It is notable that the vast majority have been willing to seek and accept the mandatum from the local bishop.

It was my intention not to be on campus during graduation day. I had so informed the university president and the student leadership with whom I was in touch nearly every day. But as graduation drew near, I knew I should be with the students. It was only right that the bishop be with them, for they were on the side of truth, and their demonstration was disciplined, rooted in prayer and substantive. I told the pro-life rally, several thousand people strong, that they were the true heroes. Despite the personal costs to themselves and their families, they chose to give public witness to the Catholic faith contrary to the example of a powerful, international university, against which they were respectfully but firmly in disagreement. Among those in attendance were many who work daily at crisis-pregnancy centers on behalf of life.

Silent board

In the midst of the crisis at Notre Dame, the board of trustees came to campus in April for their long-scheduled spring meeting. They said nothing. When the meeting was completed, they made no statement and gave no advice. In an age when transparency is urged as a way of life on and off campus, they chose not to enter the conversation going on all around them and shaking the university to its roots. We learned nothing about their discussions.

I firmly believe that the board of trustees must take up its responsibility afresh, with appropriate study and prayer. They also must understand the seriousness of the present moment. This requires spiritual and intellectual formation on the part of the men and women of industry, business and technology who make up the majority of the board.

Financial generosity is no longer sufficient for membership on the boards of great universities, if indeed it ever was. The responsibility of university boards is great, and decisions must not be made by a few. Like bishops, they are asked to leave politics and ambition at the door, and make serious decisions before God.

As bishops, we must be teachers and pastors. In that spirit, I would respectfully put these questions to the Catholic universities in the diocese I serve and to other Catholic universities:

Do you consider it a responsibility in your public statements, in your life as a university, and in your actions, including your public awards, to give witness to the Catholic faith in all its fullness?

What is your relationship to the Church and specifically to the local bishop and his pastoral authority as defined by the Second Vatican Council?

Finally, a more fundamental question: Where will the great Catholic universities search for a guiding light in the years ahead? Will it be the Land O'Lakes statement or Ex Corde Ecclesiae?

The first comes from a frantic time with finances as the driving force. Its understanding of freedom is defensive, absolutist and narrow. It never mentions Christ, and barely mentions the truth. The second text, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, speaks constantly of truth and the pursuit of truth. It speaks of freedom in the broader, Catholic, philosophical and theological tradition, as linked to the common good, to the rights of others and always subject to truth. Unlike Land O'Lakes, it is communal, reflective of the developments since Vatican II, and it speaks with a language enlightened by the Holy Spirit.

On these three questions, I respectfully submit, rests the future of Catholic higher education in this country -- and so much else.

Key words

Land O'Lakes

Refers to a document prepared and signed at a 1967 meeting in Wisconsin of two dozen prominent Catholic educators that asserts the need for Catholic universities to have "true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical."

Ex Corde Ecclesiae

Pope John Paul II's 1990 apostolic constitution that calls on bishops to take an active role in fostering the identity and mission of Catholic universities.

Bishop John M. D'Arcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., is OSV's ex officio chairman of the board. This is an excerpt of an article that ran in America magazine.