Archbishop Chaput on Notre Dame and the issues that remain
May 18, 2009
Archbishop Charles Chaput
Archbishop of Denver, CO
"I have found that even
among those who did not go to Notre Dame, even among those who do not share the
Catholic faith, there is a special expectation, a special hope, for what Notre
Dame can accomplish in the world."
~ Reverend John Jenkins,
C.S.C., May 17, 2009
Most graduation speeches are
a mix of piety and optimism designed to ease students smoothly into real life.
The best have humor. Some genuinely inspire. But only a rare few manage to be
pious, optimistic, evasive, sad and damaging all at the same time. Father John
Jenkins, C.S.C., Notre Dame’s president, is a man of substantial intellect and
ability. This makes his introductory comments to President Obama’s Notre Dame
commencement speech on May 17 all the more embarrassing.
Let’s remember that the
debate over President Obama’s appearance at Notre Dame was never about whether
he is a good or bad man. The president is clearly a sincere and able man. By
his own words, religion has had a major influence in his life. We owe him the
respect Scripture calls us to show all public officials. We have a duty to pray
for his wisdom and for the success of his service to the common good -- insofar
as it is guided by right moral reasoning.
We also have the duty to
oppose him when he’s wrong on foundational issues like abortion, embryonic stem
cell research and similar matters. And we also have the duty to avoid
prostituting our Catholic identity by appeals to phony dialogue that mask an
abdication of our moral witness. Notre Dame did not merely invite the president
to speak at its commencement. It also conferred an unnecessary and unearned
honorary law degree on a man committed to upholding one of the worst Supreme
Court decisions in our nation’s history: Roe v. Wade.
In doing so, Notre Dame
ignored the U.S. bishops’ guidance in their 2004 statement, Catholics in
Political Life. It ignored the concerns of Ambassador Mary Ann Glendon, Notre
Dame’s 2009 Laetare Medal honoree – who, unlike the president, certainly did
deserve her award, but finally declined it in frustration with the university’s
action. It ignored appeals from the university’s local bishop, the president of
the U.S. Catholic bishops’ conference, more than 70 other bishops, many
thousands of Notre Dame alumni and hundreds of thousands of other American
Catholics. Even here in Colorado, I’ve heard from too many to count.
There was no excuse – none,
except intellectual vanity – for the university to persist in its course. And
Father Jenkins compounded a bad original decision with evasive and disingenuous
explanations to subsequently justify it.
These are hard words, but
they’re deserved precisely because of Father Jenkins’ own remarks on May 17:
Until now, American Catholics have indeed had “a special expectation, a special
hope for what Notre Dame can accomplish in the world.” For many faithful
Catholics – and not just a “small but vocal group” described with such
inexcusable disdain and ignorance in journals like Time magazine -- that changed
The May 17 events do have
some fitting irony, though. Almost exactly 25 years ago, Notre Dame provided
the forum for Gov. Mario Cuomo to outline the “Catholic” case for “pro-choice”
public service. At the time, Cuomo’s speech was hailed in the media as a
masterpiece of American Catholic legal and moral reasoning. In retrospect, it’s
clearly adroit. It’s also, just as clearly, an illogical and intellectually
shabby exercise in the manufacture of excuses. Father Jenkins’ explanations,
and President Obama’s honorary degree, are a fitting national bookend to a
quarter century of softening Catholic witness in Catholic higher education.
Together, they’ve given the next generation of Catholic leadership all the
excuses they need to baptize their personal conveniences and ignore what it
really demands to be “Catholic” in the public square.
Chicago’s Cardinal Francis
George has suggested that Notre Dame “didn’t understand” what it means to be
Catholic before these events began. He's correct, and Notre Dame is hardly
alone in its institutional confusion. That's the heart of the matter. Notre
Dame’s leadership has done a real disservice to the Church, and now seeks to
ride out the criticism by treating it as an expression of fringe anger. But the
damage remains, and Notre Dame’s critics are right. The most vital thing
faithful Catholics can do now is to insist – by their words, actions and
financial support – that institutions claiming to be “Catholic” actually live
the faith with courage and consistency. If that happens, Notre Dame’s failure
may yet do some unintended good.