Saturday, March 28, 2009

What the Notre Dame Controversy is Really About and What’s Really at Stake

Note: I wrote the following piece for The Progressive Catholic Voice. If you’d like to comment on it, please do so on the PCV site. Thanks.


Over the past week or so a number of thoughtful responses have been written and shared in relation to the controversy that has erupted over President Barack Obama’s invitation to give this year’s commencement address at the University of Notre Dame, the country’s second largest Roman Catholic university.

Notre Dame has a tradition of inviting new presidents to speak at graduation. Jimmy Carter spoke in 1977, Ronald Reagan in 1981, and George W. Bush in 2001. Yet Obama’s invitation has triggered a furor in some Catholic quarters. And important questions have to be asked: Why is this such an issue? What is this controversy really about? And what’s really at stake for Catholic education and the wider Church?


Chicago Sun Times columnist Carol Marin notes that the heated debate over Notre Dame’s Obama decision stems from the fact that the pro-choice Obama, in the first weeks of his presidency, “reversed Bush administration policy by restoring funding to international family planning groups that provide abortion services and by removing limits on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.”

Various Roman Catholic bishops have voiced their “disappointment” over the decision by Notre Dame’s president Rev. Robert Jenkins’ invitation to Obama. Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix, for instance, has accused Jenkins of committing “a public act of disobedience to the Bishops of the United States.”

Renowned Catholic commentator Thomas J. Reese (pictured at left) disagrees. In a piece in the Washington Post he writes:

How do I know that Notre Dame is not violating [the U.S. Bishops’ statement] “Catholics in Political Life?” Because Notre Dame is doing nothing more than what has already been done by Cardinal Edward Egan of New York, who taught canon law and worked as a judge in the Tribunal of the Sacred Roman Rota, a church court based in the Vatican.

If Cardinal Egan can invite Obama to speak at the Al Smith dinner in October of 2008 when he was only a presidential candidate, then there is certainly nothing wrong with Notre Dame having the President speak at a commencement. Other pro-choice speakers at Al Smith dinners included Al Gore and Tony Blair (a Catholic). What is OK for a cardinal archbishop is certainly OK for a university. Or are bishops exempt from “Catholics in Political Life”?


A national protest of Notre Dame’s decision is building – one that is seemingly determined to have the university’s invitation to Obama rescinded. Perhaps the most vocal leader within this protest movement is Patrick Reilly (pictured at right), the president of the Cardinal Newman Society.

Writes Reilly: “It is an outrage and a scandal (emphasis his) that ‘Our Lady’s University,’ one of the premier Catholic universities in the United States, would bestow such an honor on President Obama given his clear support for policies and laws that directly contradict fundamental Catholic teachings on life and marriage.”

Yet other Catholics are supportive of the decision to invite Obama. What concerns many of these Catholics is how the issue of abortion has become the trump card of every moral discussion both within and beyond the Church.

On her blog Enlightened Catholicism, Colleen Kochivar-Baker observes that:

There is absolutely no way this insanity would have occurred thirty years ago. None. That it is happening today is nothing short of embarrassing for American Catholicism. In my opinion our political battles surrounding abortion have made the American Catholic Church a cancerous node in the global Catholic union. The vast majority of abortions are the result of other social problems which President Obama is willing to address. That doesn’t make him a baby killer.

Kochivar-Baker no doubt expresses the view of many Catholics when she declares that she is “really tired of abortion politics.” She goes on to write:

But what I am most tired of is the notion that the only solution to the abortion issue is the criminalization of abortion. This strategy does not stop abortion. Providing women with the resources to raise their children stops abortion. Insisting males take responsibility for their sexual activity impacts abortion, something President Obama has been quite willing to repeatedly and forcefully state. Something I personally have never heard stated in a sermon.

She requests a simple explanation from the bishops: “Why [is it] gravely sinful to operate from the understanding that abortion law in this country isn’t going to change, and that other strategies must be pursued?”

According to Kochivar-Baker, such an explanation is not forthcoming because “the Notre Dame controversy isn’t about abortion. It’s about sabotaging President Obama for the crime of being a victorious Democrat. It’s about fomenting Catholic Republicans to keep flexing their muscle to keep the donations coming, to keep Republican activists in charge of Catholic opinion.”

What’s really going on

Meanwhile, National Catholic Reporter publisher, Joe Feuerherd (pictured at left), pulls no punches when he likens Patrick Reilly, the president of the Cardinal Newman Society, to an “academic ayatollah.” Feuerherd also makes the following observation:

Reilly and the Society, however, were strangely silent when then-Vice President Cheney spoke at the Catholic University of America in January 2005. Cheney (like Obama) opposes a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and has some questionable views on the “intrinsic evil” of state-sponsored torture, but that was apparently of no concern to Reilly. The Society did not protest the vice president’s appearance.

Here’s what is really going on. Ayatollah Reilly searches for hot button issues on Catholic campuses – anything that has to do with gays gets them excited, as do performances of “The Vagina Monologues” and, of course, pro-choice speakers (few of whom actually even discuss abortion in their presentations) - that will energize their base of donors and activists. Then they highlight these offenses on the Web and through direct mail to generate revenue.

Columnist David Gibson notes that “Reilly also didn’t protest when Bush was invited to give the commencement address at St. Vincent College in Pennsylvania, despite Reilly’s admission to Feuerhard that Bush was at odds with the church on some life issues – and, I would add, just about precept of Catholic social teaching.”

What’s really at stake

In her March 28 column, Carol Marin interviews Dick Meister (pictured at right), the former provost of DePaul University – the nation’s largest Catholic university. It’s an insightful exchange.

“The role of a Catholic university,” says Meister, is to “espouse academic freedom where people are allowed to research, teach and hear many voices on campus . . . at the same time manifesting the gospel of Christ and the beatitudes to serve the poor, be the bridge between the haves and the have-nots.”

What about the fear that Notre Dame is compromising its Catholic identity [by inviting President Obama to speak]?

“It epitomizes Notre Dame’s Catholic identity,” he argued. “Hearing many voices is its strength, not its weakness.”

Thomas J, Reese agrees, noting that:

People need to recognize that Catholic universities have to be places where freedom of speech and discussion is recognized and valued. Not to allow a diversity of speakers on campus is to put Catholic universities into a ghetto.

When I was a student in the 1960’s, Jesuit-run Santa Clara University was attacked for performing “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?” and for having a Marxist speak on campus. Now we are fighting over the “Vagina Monologue” and pro-choice politicians. If Catholic universities are afraid to have people on campus who challenge our views, then we are not training students to listen and think critically. We are admitting that our arguments are not convincing.

A test of strength

Carol Marin concludes her column by acknowledging that “[Roman] Catholic bishops vehemently disagree” with Notre Dame’s Obama decision.

“Chief among them,” she writes, “is Bishop John D’Arcy [pictured at left] of the South Bend diocese, which includes Notre Dame. He will not attend, saying, ‘A bishop must teach the Catholic faith “in season and out of season,” and he teaches not by his words – but by his actions.’”

It’s a statement that elicits the following response from Marin:

If only Catholic bishops were consistent in their own actions. Haven’t they allowed Cardinal Bernard Law, formerly of Boston, and the prelate who obstructed justice in the investigation of the horrific pedophilia scandal in his own diocese, to remain a member in good standing? Law wasn’t sanctioned but rewarded: He now runs the third largest basilica in Rome.

Does that outrageous Vatican decision mean we shouldn’t listen to what else they have to say? No. Bishops aren’t one-dimensional. And neither is Barack Obama. Commencement will be a testament to Notre Dame’s strength and Rev. Jenkins’ courage.

To view and sign a petition stating your support for Notre Dame and its invitation to President Obama, visit

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
What Does it Mean to Be a Catholic University?
A Not So “New” Catholic University

Recommended Off-site Links:
Notre Dame’s Common Ground - Douglas W. Kmiec (Chicago Tribune, March 29, 2009).
Moving Up the Spiritual Food Chain: Notre Dame Disappoints Cardinal DiNardo - Colleen Kochivar-Baker (Enlightened Catholicism, March 29, 2009).
I Voted for Obama. Will I Go Straight to . . . ? - Joe Feuerherd (Washington Post, February 24, 2009).