After Notre Dame

Where do things stand, two months after the University of Notre Dame defied the bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend and some 80 of his fellow-bishops by awarding an honorary doctorate of laws to the university’s 2009 commencement speaker, the president of the United States?

From the administration’s point of view, President Obama’s Notre Dame speech was an unmitigated success. The president was eloquent, high-minded, and decent-spirited. He also did something no previous president had ever done—he injected himself into the ongoing debate among U.S. Catholics over Catholic identity, by suggesting that the “real” Catholics were those who, like Notre Dame, welcomed him for “dialogue.” This story-line—that the Notre Dame controversy was about openness and dialogue, on the one hand, versus narrow-mindedness and fanaticism, on the other—was successfully sold to the national media by the administration, aided and abetted by the president’s Catholic intellectual acolytes. That, in the process of fostering “dialogue,” the administration was playing wedge politics, dividing a significant number of the Catholic bishops of the United States from their people, went largely unremarked.

But that is, was, and remains the issue here: to vary James Carville on the 1992 election, “It’s the ecclesiology, stupid.” That the vast majority of Catholics in the U.S. never understood that this entire affair was about the nature, structure, and discipline of the Church, not about politics, demonstrates just how attenuated Catholic identity in America has become, and just how poorly catechized many Catholics are.

This bodes poorly for the future. In the Obama affair, Notre Dame claimed, not only an internal liberty to order its academic life according to its own best lights, but a liberty against the local bishop. In effect, Notre Dame declared itself independent of the Catholic Church, as the Catholic Church is embodied in South Bend, Ind., by the bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend. The administration and trustees of Notre Dame would doubtless protest that they are proudly Catholic. But the question remains: What is the embodiment, the instantiation, the living reality of the Catholic Church to which they profess loyalty? Where is it? Who speaks for it? What difference does it make what he says?

As for the bishops, they must now face the ecclesiological facts of life caused by four decades of ineffective catechesis compounded by the afterburn of the Long Lent of 2002 and its revelations of episcopal irresponsibility. One of the primary purposes of Vatican II was to lift up the local bishop as a genuine shepherd and father of the local Church, not simply a branch manager assigned by the Roman corporate GHQ. Very few Catholics in the United States understand this, however. They may revere the pope; they may love their pastor; but they have little sense of ecclesial connection to the local bishop or understanding of his responsibilities. So when crunch time comes and bishops try to defend the Catholic identity of Catholic institutions (medical, charitable, or educational), the default response of too many Catholics in the U.S. is that “this is just politics.” The same default kicks in when a bishop reminds a politician that he or she is in spiritual jeopardy if they receive holy Communion while being in a defective state of communion with the Church on grave moral issues.

This default badly limits the bishops’ maneuvering room. Were a bishop to summon the courage to deploy his canonical authority and declare that the University of X can no longer be considered a Catholic institution, he would almost certainly be misunderstood by a large majority of his people as acting politically, not ecclesiastically—as a partisan, not as a shepherd defending the integrity of the flock. That doesn’t mean that such things shouldn’t be done. But doing them requires careful catechetical preparation and an effective communications strategy for explaining what was done, and why.

In sum, and to revert to my opening question: how do things look, two months after the Notre Dame affair? Bullish, for the administration and its wedge agenda. Bearish indeed for those concerned about religious freedom, Catholic identity, and the recovery of episcopal leadership in the United States.

George Weigel


George Weigel is an American author and political and social activist. He currently serves as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Weigel was the Founding President of the James Madison Foundation.

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  • Cooky642

    Yes, but the Mama Bear will protect her cubs vociferously! So may our bishops and our Mother Church protect us, God willing.

  • Doris Rodriguez

    So, I guess now we simply view Notre Dame as a prodigal child who is squandering her great inheritence, pray for her safe return, and keep vigil with our heavenly Father on the roof … while turning a blind eye to the millions she is leading away from the Way, the Truth, and the Life… and hope they all come to their senses?

    It reminds me of a world who sat idly by while Hitler systematically imprisoned and exterminated millions of Jews and Jewish sympathizers. No one dared to raise a voice of protest … and now, today, our voices are still silent while millions of unborn children are being murdered in the very wombs that were created to protect and nourish them.

    By doing and saying nothing, we lend our silent consent to these kinds of atrocities. “Heavenly Father, open our eyes and our hearts to Your Truth! Protect these innocent lives who are being destroyed by the millions, and forgive us for not doing more to save them. +++ Amen

  • Why weren’t there consequences to Notre Dame and to Fr. Jenkins and the Trustees for defying their bishop? I haven’t been able to understand that.

  • PrairieHawk,

    These people may have won an earthly victory, but not a heavenly one, the consequences are dyer, pray for them and us all, less we go into exile.

  • maryland

    For both the leaders of the university and the President the incident seems to be forgotten … all have patted themselves on their collective backs and moved on.

    Yet for the handful of “real Catholics” who brought their “Catholic truths concerning abortion,” their Rosaries, the beautiful prayers to our Blessed Mother, and their futures to Notre Dame the “dialogue” continues … in the courtroom.

    The elegant speaker has nothing to say to those who stand up for the innocent. The university leaders, those wayward decision makers make no comment or apology.

    All need our prayers … the innocent; the responsible Catholics who like John the Baptizer came to testify to the Light; the elegant earthy leader who does not yet understand; the university leaders who have forgotten their mother … the mother of Jesus, Mary the mother of God, who watched her son die for all children.

    Pray for us, O holy Mother of God.

  • javanderhulst

    The most appropriate and canonical response would be to declare Notre Dame no longer Catholic. This is well within the bishop’s power and is even a fairly mild discipline. It would also merely be formalizing the obvious: Notre Dame has ceased to be Catholic except in name only for decades. And the recent act of formal rebellion and disobedience is merely the straw that broke the camel’s back. The worst thing about this ordeal, to my mind, is the scandal that it has caused because Notre Dame professes to be a Catholic institution. There was no to do over the other universities that refused to honor President Obama. Only over this one. An official declaration that Notre Dame is no longer officially Catholic would perfectly remedy this situation.

  • LarryW2LJ

    I think what we also fail to realize; and this “was brought home” to me a few years back is that the Bishops are the equivalent of the Apostles on earth today. If the Pope is in essence, “St. Peter”, if you will; then the Bishops are the rest of “The Twelve”. I never thought if it that way, until the analogy was made for me a few years ago. It opened my eye in a whole new way.

  • fatherjo

    Some priests were thrown in jail for protesting this travesty at Notre Dame. Those priests should be honored as a way of educating the faithful as to the proper course of action in the face of grave evil and scandal. Puffed up clerical administrators responsible for this outrage should be taken down, at least a notch or two.

  • DWC

    As usual, George Weigel nails it on the head. I’m glad to see this issue raised once again — because I too believe the issue bigger than the context it is often placed (and that context is huge).

  • Cooky642

    Doris Rodriguez, I have to object to your “blind eye”, “voices still silent”, “doing and saying nothing” comments. If you don’t see the thousands of people out there working their fingers to the bone, hearts bleeding, for these poor benighted folks, you’re either not seeing what’s there, or you’re so isolated that you’re unaware. In neither case is your perspective correct. There are more thousands behind those who are working–people who are giving financially to support their work, and praying consistently. Even those of us unable to go out and do the work still work in our own way: a bumper sticker, a pin, an encouraging word to a pregnant woman in line at the grocery store (and not in a whisper, either: others overhear).

    In the end, God in His mysterious wisdom has ordained that “many” will believe the lies, will prefer their own will to His, will harden their hearts and hasten on their merry way to hell. If HE refused to stop them, to MAKE them turn to Him, how dare we assume that we have that right or obligation to do so? The world laughs at us, thinking we have no power. Little do they know that we are connected to the Power that created all that is! We cannot know, in this life, the power of one genuine prayer.

  • christymomof3

    As Cathy Caridi points out in her column, we really don’t know what the bishop is doing behind the scenes. Let’s look at the issue again n a couple of years; we will probably notice some difference. I don’t believe this bishop is going to let the ND board and administration get away with what we now think they’ve gotten away with.