The Church and the University
A pastoral reflection on the controversy at Notre Dame
Bishop John M. D'Arcy
Published in America Magazine
August 1, 2009
A s summer plays itself out on the beautiful campus by the lake where the
young Holy Cross priest, Edward Sorin, C.S.C., pitched his camp 177 years ago
and began his great adventure, we must clarify the situation that so sundered
the church last spring: What it is all about and what it is not about.
It is not about President 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 versus Republicans, nor was it a replay of the recent
It is not about whether it is appropriate for the president of the United States
to speak at 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.
The response, so intense and widespread, is not about what this journal called
“sectarian Catholicism.” Rather, the response of the faithful derives directly
from the Gospel. In Matthew’s words, “Your light must shine before others, that
they may see your good works, and glorify your heavenly Father” (5:13).
Does a Catholic university have the responsibility to give witness to the
Catholic faith and to the consequences of that faith by its actions and
decisions—especially by a decision to confer its highest honor? If not, what is
the meaning of a life of faith? And how can a Catholic institution expect its
students to live by faith in the difficult decisions that will confront them in
a culture often opposed to the Gospel?
Pope Benedict XVI, himself a former university professor, made his position
clear when he spoke to Catholic educators in Washington, D.C., on April 17,
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, “The
Vagina Monologues,” by Eve Ensler.
Although he spoke eloquently about the importance of dialogue with the president
of the United States, the president of Notre Dame 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. For the past 24 years, it
has been my privilege to serve as the bishop of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South
Bend. During this time, I have never interfered in the internal governance of
Notre Dame or any other institution of higher learning within the diocese.
However, as the teacher and shepherd in this diocese, it is my responsibility to
encourage all institutions, including our beloved University of Notre Dame, to
give public witness to the fullness of Catholic faith. The diocesan bishop must
ask whether a Catholic institution compromises its obligation to give public
witness by placing prestige over truth. The bishop must be concerned that
Catholic institutions do not succumb to the secular culture, making decisions
that appear to many, including ordinary Catholics, as a surrender to a culture
opposed to the truth about life and love.
The Local Bishop
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 on campus? 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—in this case, the
students at Notre Dame? 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.
Prof. John Cavadini has addressed the questions about the relationship of the
university and the bishop in an especially insightful manner. He is chair of the
theology department and an expert on the early church, with a special interest
in St. Augustine. His remarks were a response to Father Jenkins’s rationale for
presenting the play mentioned above.
The statement of our President [Father Jenkins] 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 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...”
(Lumen Gentium, Nos. 4, 8, 23).
The ancient Gnostic heresy developed an elitist intellectual tradition which
eschewed connection to the “fleshly” church of the bishop and devalued or
spiritualized the sacraments. Are we in danger of developing a gnosticized
version of the “Catholic intellectual tradition,” one which floats free of any
norming connection and so free of any concrete claim to Catholic identity?
The full letter can be found on the Web site of the Notre Dame student
newspaper, The Observer: www.ndsmcobserver.com.
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 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 XVI. It
is notable that a vast majority has been willing to seek and accept the mandatum
from the local bishop.
Developments on Campus
Yet the questions about the relationship of the university as a whole to the
church still stand, and what happened on campus leading up to and during the
graduation is significant for the present debate about Catholic higher
education. I released a statement on Good Friday, asking the Catholic people and
others of good will not to attend demonstrations by those who had come avowedly
to “create a circus.” I referred to appropriate and acceptable responses within
the Notre Dame community led by students. Titled “ND Response,” and drawing a
significant number of professors, these responses were marked by prayer and
church teaching, and they were orderly.
This journal and others in the media, Catholic and secular, reporting from afar,
failed to make a distinction between the extremists on the one hand, and
students and those who joined them in the last 48 hours before graduation. This
latter group responded with prayer and substantive disagreement. They cooperated
with university authorities.
In this time of crisis at the university, these students and professors, with
the instinct of faith, turned to the bishop for guidance, encouragement and
prayer. This had nothing to do with John Michael D’Arcy. It was related to their
understanding of the episcopal office - a place you should be able to count on
for the truth, as Irenaeus contended in the second century when he encountered
I attended the Baccalaureate Mass the day before graduation, for the 25th time,
speaking after holy Communion, as I always do. Then I led an evening rosary at
the Grotto with students, adults and a number of professors. We then went to a
chapel on campus. It was packed for a whole night of prayer and eucharistic
It was my intention not to be on campus during graduation day. I had so informed
Father Jenkins and the student leadership, with whom I was in touch nearly every
day. This is the kind of deference and respect I have shown to the Notre Dame
administration, to three Notre Dame presidents, over the years. I found it an
increasingly sad time, and I was convinced that there were no winners, but I was
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 on a lovely May day, 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.
The 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. In the case of Notre Dame, they
owe it to the Congregation of Holy Cross, which has turned this magnificent
place over to a predominately lay board; they owe it to the students who have
not yet come; they owe it to the intrepid missionary priest, Edward Sorin, C.S.C.,
and the Holy Cross religious who built this magnificent place out of the
wilderness. They owe it to Mary, the Mother of God, who has always been honored
here. Let us pray that they will take this responsibility with greater
seriousness and in a truly Catholic spirit.
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
On these three questions, I respectfully submit, rests the future of Catholic
higher education in this country and so much else.
For more on President Obama's appearance at Notre Dame see America's archive on
Most Rev. John M. D’Arcy is the bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., in which
the University of Notre Dame is located.
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