Notre Dame: Fr. Cleary’s Letter Falls Short, Archbishop Nienstedt’s Hits the Mark


Deacon Keith Fournier


CHESAPEAKE, Va. (Catholic Online) - Rev. Hugh W. Cleary, C.S.C. is the Superior General of the Congregation of the Holy Cross (Congregatio a Sancta Cruce). The Holy Cross Community is the Order which serves the University of Notre Dame. This University is one of the Premier Catholic Universities in the United States and has become the center of a controversy which will not fade. This controversy has become the symbol of the growing desire among not only the Catholic faithful but other Christians, that Notre Dame reaffirm its Catholic Christian identity on every front. That entails taking a strong stand for the Right to Life of all persons from conception to Natural death.

On March 22, 2009, Fr. Cleary wrote a 13 page letter to the President of the United States. Unusual not only for its extraordinary length but also for its candor, the letter has surfaced on the internet. The letter seems to reveal a Superior General in a quandary and going through a personal struggle. Fr. Cleary goes to great lengths at the beginning of this 13 page letter to create what appears to me be a safety valve of sorts,a kind of “plausible deniability” move right out of the political playbook. He explains to the President that since 1967 the University has been under the control of lay men and women: “On March 6, 1967, with the consent of the Holy Father Pope Paul VI, in the spirit of Vatican Council II with its clarion call for all Catholics to take greater responsibility for living and strengthening the life of the Church, the Congregation of Holy Cross ceded its ownership of the University of Notre Dame to a Board of Fellows. The University remains, however, under the continuous sponsorship of the Congregation of Holy Cross of which I am the Superior General…”

Fr. Cleary may be hoping that should the president not withdraw from speaking he will be able to say he tried. He continues: “As you know the University of Notre Dame's decision to award you the honorary degree and to invite you to deliver the commencement address is fraught with controversy. As Superior General of the Congregation of Holy Cross I have been deluged with angry e-mails regarding Notre Dame's decision to invite you to campus for the honors you are to receive. Because of the University's legal civil alienation from the Congregation, I have no authority over its decision making - those responsibilities are now directed by a Board of Fellows and a Board of Trustees. Nevertheless I do hold personal authority over all of the Holy Cross priests and brothers of the Congregation who serve at the University of Notre Dame including its president who is always a Holy Cross priest.”

He then engages the President where his positions are antithetical to the truth concerning life, explaining what he calls the “…intrinsic Catholic dogma which upholds the dignity of human life.” Indeed this is Catholic Moral teaching, every procured abortion is intrinsically evil because it is the taking of innocent human life. However, in calling this a “Catholic position” we need to explain that the Catholic Church proclaims that this position is grounded in the truths revealed by the Natural law which are knowable through reason and binding on all men, women… and Governments. These truths are also confirmed by Medical science. Fr. Cleary most certainly knows this but sadly did not state it with clarity in this lengthy letter. From Paragraph 2273 of the Catechism: “The inalienable right to life of every innocent human individual is a constitutive element of a civil society and its legislation:

"The inalienable rights of the person must be recognized and respected by civil society and the political authority. These human rights depend neither on single individuals nor on parents; nor do they represent a concession made by society and the state; they belong to human nature and are inherent in the person by virtue of the creative act from which the person took his origin. Among such fundamental rights one should mention in this regard every human being's right to life and physical integrity from the moment of conception until death. The moment a positive law deprives a category of human beings of the protection which civil legislation ought to accord them, the state is denying the equality of all before the law. When the state does not place its power at the service of the rights of each citizen, and in particular of the more vulnerable, the very foundations of a state based on law are undermined.... As a consequence of the respect and protection which must be ensured for the unborn child from the moment of conception, the law must provide appropriate penal sanctions for every deliberate violation of the child's rights."

There is an “abortion distortion” advanced by some Catholics in public life. It attributes the Catholic position on life to being one of many “religious” positions. It then asserts that it should thus be left out of the Public Policy debate out of "tolerance". It further asserts it cannot be incorporated in the positive law because we are a “Pluralistic Nation”. To the contrary, the Catholic position is that the Right to Life is the foundation of any just society no matter what its make up and it must be present in the positive law of every Nation because it forms the framework for every other human right. Without this foundation the very infrastructure of human rights collapses.

Fr. Cleary goes out of his way to affirm the President for his intellect and gifts: “President Obama, you are superbly versed in the issues of our day. I have no doubt that your policy convictions are grounded in rigorous study and that all your important decisions are supported by your conscience. Therefore, through this open letter, I would like to take advantage of the occasion of your receiving an honorary degree from Notre Dame, to ask you to rethink, through prayerful wrestling with your own conscience, your stated positions on the vital "life issues" of our day, particularly in regard to abortion, embryonic forms of stem cell research and your position on the Freedom of Choice Act before Congress.” He misses the opportunity to help the President re-form what is an errant conscience on this vital issue!

He continues “President Obama, your presence at Notre Dame, a premier Catholic institution, is regarded by many good Catholics as scandalous because of your support of abortion rights, regarded by us as an intrinsic evil. In awarding you this degree, they experience Notre Dame as undermining essential, intrinsic Catholic dogma which upholds the dignity of human life. They believe that in honoring you or in giving you a platform to speak, the University of Notre Dame is selling her soul for who knows what: perhaps, at best, for the prestige and glory of having the President of the United States on campus during his first year in office or perhaps at worst, giving an endorsement to your "anti-life policies."

This is an oddly written letter. It does not ask the President of the United States to withdraw from speaking. It is a rambling defense of the Catholic position and an apparent effort to be diplomatic. I have read it several times and am still confused as to its real intent. In the event that the President does not withdraw from speaking, this letter will likely be referred to by the leadership of the Congregation of the Holy Cross to claim that it “tried” to avert the further problems which will arise. Should the President choose not to speak, it may provide him a vehicle to do so while claiming that he respects the “religious convictions” of “some” Catholics and he chooses not to offend them out of respect. However, his Anti- Right to Life Executive Orders, appointments, and social agenda unmask a profound disrespect for Life itself.

One more Bishop weighed in today, the Most Reverend John C. Nienstedt, Archbishop of Saint Paul and Minneapolis. His letter to the President of Notre Dame was absolutely clear and extremely short. He did not need a lot of words. It was made public by the Cardinal Newman Society, the lay organization which leads the effort to restore Catholic identity to Catholic Colleges and Universities. It was their Petition which fueled the groundswell of opposition to President Obama’s invitation. The Archbishop wrote: “I write to protest this egregious decision on your part. President Obama has been a pro-abortion legislator. He has indicated, especially since he took office, his deliberate disregard of the unborn by lifting the ban on embryonic stem cell research, by promoting the FOCA agenda and by his open support for gay rights throughout this country. It is a travesty that the University of Notre Dame, considered by many to be a Catholic University, should give its public support to such an anti-Catholic politician.”

Two very different letters; a lengthy unclear one from Fr. Hugh W. Cleary, C.S.C. and a courageous missive, short and to the point, from the Most Reverend John C. Nienstedt. It is the one from Archbishop Nienstedt which will go down in history when the story of the recovery of Notre Dame is recounted for our children.