Notre Dame, Obama, and the Bishop’s Authority

Q: We all know that the bishop of the diocese where Notre Dame University is located wouldn’t go to graduation this year because President Obama was coming. But why didn’t he simply forbid the school to allow Obama to come? If NDU is in his diocese, doesn’t he have the authority to step in if they do something scandalous like this? –Melissa

A: Notre Dame University, which is located within the territory of the diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, is run by the Holy Cross Fathers, a clerical religious institute.  As virtually every Catholic in this country already knows, the decision to invite President Obama to the school’s 2009 graduation ceremony, where he received an honorary degree, was ultimately made by Notre Dame’s president, Holy Cross Father John Jenkins—who therefore could presumably have later rescinded the invitation if he had chosen to do so.  Very soon after the invitation was made public, the bishop of the diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, John M. D’Arcy, announced that he would not be attending this year’s commencement ceremonies in protest.  The presence of the local bishop at Notre Dame’s graduation has become a tradition, so his absence was intended—and was seen—as a strong protest against the school’s decision to honor a president who has consistently taken positions on life issues that are diametrically opposed to those of the Catholic Church.   But could Bishop D’Arcy have done more?

On the surface, it would appear that the diocesan bishop ought to be able to take direct, decisive action when he judges that activities at a Catholic university within his territory are causing scandal and/or promoting teachings contrary to the Catholic faith.  After all, canon 386.2 notes that the bishop is to firmly defend the integrity and unity of the faith by whatever means seem most appropriate to him. In this case, couldn’t one argue that forbidding Notre Dame to follow through with its plans to honor a pro-abortion president would be an appropriate way to defend the faith?

But the answer is not so simple. At issue here is the fact that Notre Dame University was established, and is operated, by a religious institute—the Holy Cross Fathers. This situation is by definition an extremely common one:  groups of religious routinely establish all sorts of schools, hospitals, and charitable entities within various diocesan boundaries. While the diocesan bishop naturally has the duty and the right to safeguard the spiritual welfare of the faithful within his territory, the religious who are living and working there are directly answerable not to the bishop, but to their own religious superiors. In practice, both religious and bishops are ordinarily well aware of the complexities of their inter-relationship, and of each other’s rights and responsibilities. Let’s take a look at some of the more common situations that one finds throughout in the Church in the United States, and at the ways in which canon law applies to them. Then we can look at the specific case of Notre Dame and the diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, and answer Melissa’s question directly.

By definition, convents and monasteries housing sisters, brothers, or priests must be located within some diocese or archdiocese. For a group of religious to come into a diocese and establish a house like this, the bishop’s advance permission is always required (c. 609.1 ). In other words, it would be canonically impossible for (let’s say) a group of Catholic sisters to enter the diocese of X on their own initiative to found a new convent, if the bishop of X for some reason didn’t want them there. And occasionally a bishop may very well not want a particular group of religious in his diocese.  He may feel, for example, that there are already enough different religious institutes in his territory, without adding one more. Or perhaps he may object to some questionable theological position promoted by a particular religious institute. Regardless of his reasoning, the bishop’s approval is key.

Similarly, the bishop’s permission is also needed if a religious institute already functioning in his diocese wishes to undertake a new type of work there. If, for example, a group of brothers already living in a monastery within diocese X now want to open a soup-kitchen to feed the homeless in one wing of their monastery, they must first obtain permission from the bishop of X (c. 612 ). However laudable their desire to feed the hungry may be, the bishop may have excellent practical reasons for not wanting these religious to do this. The important thing to keep in mind here is that religious cannot simply do as they please, when their plans involve engaging in work within a particular bishop’s territory. They are bound in these cases to abide by the bishop’s decision.

At the same time, however, once a particular religious institute has been allowed to establish a house within his diocese, the bishop does not have the authority to meddle in their internal operations. After the bishop permits them to “set up shop” in his territory, these religious then have the right to establish their house in accord with their own internal statutes (c. 611 n. 1 ). Thus a bishop may not interfere, for example, if he feels that a convent of sisters has elected a superior whom he believes is a bad choice. Likewise, if a sister were to be punished by dismissal from a convent within his diocese, the bishop could not intervene on her behalf if he personally felt she had been unjustly treated. These are internal matters that are ultimately subject to the superiors of a religious institute, who may very well live far outside the bishop’s diocese (many of the major religious orders actually have their General Headquarters in Rome).  If the bishop really felt strongly about what he perceived to be a problem within a religious house in his diocese, he himself would be obliged to take it up with these superiors instead of attempting to act on his own.

Some common arrangements between bishops and religious are even more complicated. A bishop may have in his diocese a parish which he chooses to entrust to the care of a clerical religious institute, like the Dominicans or Franciscans. As canon 520 points out, the decision to do this rests with both the bishop and the religious superior, who hammer out an agreement specifying the responsibilities and expectations of both the diocese and the institute. From time to time a cases arises where (for example) the religious superior wants to re-assign to another duty a member who is currently serving as a pastor of a diocesan parish; or where the bishop objects to the religious who is serving as pastor and wants the institute to replace him with another priest. While handling these situations occasionally can get tricky in a legal sense, in general the bishop and the religious superior know how to respond based on their written agreement.

So how does all this apply to Notre Dame?  The school was founded more than 150 years ago, on land given to the Holy Cross Fathers by the bishop of Vincennes (the name of the diocese which then included this area within its territory). The school is, and always has been, operated by the Holy Cross Fathers—in other words, it certainly has never been operated by the diocese. Insofar as Notre Dame is a Holy Cross school, its inner workings are subject to the religious institute. (It should be noted that for civil-law purposes, there is also undoubtedly a Board of Trustees with some significant authority, but this does not necessarily affect the school’s status under canon law and thus need not concern us here.)

While the bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend cannot (and in this case did not try to) micromanage the internal affairs of Notre Dame, he certainly still has the duty to ensure that a school located within his territory, identifying itself as Catholic, does not publicly engage in activity that can be perceived as contrary to the Catholic faith. Not only does the bishop have the general obligation to protect the faith of the Catholics living in his diocese, as already noted above, but he also has the specific right and duty to ensure that Catholic universities within his territory are holding to the principles of the Catholic faith (c. 810.1 ).

But before anyone is tempted to castigate Bishop D’Arcy for failing to prevent Obama’s appearance at Notre Dame, it is important to keep in mind that there is nowhere in the code any obligation for discussions between a diocesan bishop and a Catholic university on such a matter to be made public. There is no doubt that many words were exchanged between Bishop D’Arcy and Notre Dame’s President, Father Jenkins. It is also a safe bet that Notre Dame heard from many others in the Catholic hierarchy here in the United States—and it would not be surprising if the Vatican itself was involved as well. Additionally, there was unquestionably a tremendous amount of discussion on this issue among the Holy Cross Fathers themselves, many of whom were adamantly opposed to the presidential invitation. It would be difficult to imagine that the Superior General of their institute has not been involved personally too.

Yet as we saw in the October 16, 2008 column regarding pro-abortion politicians receiving Holy Communion, it is never the Church’s intent to issue humiliating condemnations which would only cause one to defend himself by digging in his heels even further. The purpose of any protest is always meant to be constructive, not destructive. Consequently it should not be surprising that those church officials involved have generally avoided trumpeting their positions to the press, which was so anxious to portray the problem as some sort of political conflict, with a “right” and a “left.” All of those involved—with the obvious exception of Obama himself—are members of the Catholic Church, and thus there ideally should be no “sides” here!

Some years ago, a different Catholic university, also operated by a religious institute, became embroiled in a comparable conflict, with its students and alumni loudly protesting against campus activity that directly contradicted Catholic teaching. The school’s administration publicly refused to change its position. For many months, it appeared that nothing was being done to correct the scandal. The diocesan bishop correctly stated that, while he was concerned, direct intervention had first to be made primarily by the superiors of the religious institute operating the university. The Vatican, while informed of the problem, outwardly seemed to do nothing. Many Catholics on that occasion angrily vilified the Church’s hierarchy for its apparent indifference.

But I myself learned at the time from persons directly involved that the reality behind the scenes was very different. There were extensive ongoing discussions between the school’s president, the Superior of the religious institute running the university, the bishop, and the Vatican itself. The school’s president was quietly summoned to Rome and told in no uncertain terms, although in private, that the offending activity was to cease immediately and for good. That president subsequently put a halt to that activity and stepped down as president soon after—and the problem has never arisen at that particular university again.

The point is that while Catholics on the outside were frustrated that nothing was being done, on the inside the problem definitely was being resolved. But it was done without public embarrassment and everyone’s reputation was protected. The president of that university, and others in its administration who were responsible for permitting the anti-Catholic campus activity, were admonished but not professionally destroyed. They got the message, without feeling forced to publicly defend themselves.

This is certainly not to suggest that there is necessarily an identical plan afoot concerning the president of Notre Dame! But it is important for Catholics watching from the outside to be aware that although it may seem that some church authorities outwardly did little or nothing, it is not unreasonable to rest assured that things may be very different at Notre Dame in the future. We don’t need to know the details, for while “transparency” may be an admirable political goal, it does not apply to the Church.

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  • Kate September 18, 2013, 9:40 am

    we have a problem. A. Parishioner left money to the parish to build a student center. The bishop now wants to control the bequest. What can we do?