Putting Notre Dame’s Decision in Historical Context

For people whose view of history extends beyond last week, the furor over Notre Dame’s decision to invite President Barack Obama to be its commencement speaker and receive an honorary degree is simply the latest chapter in an old story by the name of “Americanism.” Notre Dame is a paradigmatic institution — flagship of the Americanist impulse in U.S. Catholicism — and with the uproar over our pro-abortion president the university’s special status has come home to roost for folks under the Golden Dome.

Pope Leo XIII in 1899 condemned a heresy he called Americanism as a “reprehensible” error. He had in mind a set of attitudes and practices intended to adjust Catholic belief and behavior (or in some cases just sweep them aside) to suit contemporary secular standards in unacceptable ways. The existence of such views, Leo XIII said, “raises a suspicion that there are those among you who envision and desire a Church in America other than that which is in all the rest of the world.”

Prominent figures in U.S. Catholicism like Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore—to whom the Pope’s letter was addressed—and Archbishop Ireland of St. Paul promptly insisted they held none of the views which Leo XIII had condemned. And thereupon, one historian writes, Americanism “quickly disappeared as a meaningful force in the U.S.”

But of course it didn’t. Instead, as the 20th century progressed, the Americanist spirit merged with the sociological phenomenon of cultural assimilation. Especially after World War II, higher education, new affluence, and population shifts—the breakdown of inner-city ethnic parishes as Catholics moved to the booming suburbs—fueled a progressive thinning-out of Catholic identity that’s still going on.

One result of this is easy to state: “American Catholics are firmly implanted in the American mainstream.” Those words come from an official history of Notre Dame on the university website. The overview leaves no doubt that Notre Dame considers itself similarly “implanted” while at the same time remaining a Catholic school.

The cultural assimilation of American Catholics has been a good thing in many ways—but not all. That’s painfully clear from empirical data on U.S. Catholicism showing declines in Mass attendance and sacramental participation, in priests and religious, in adherence to Catholic doctrine, and even in number of Catholics (partially masked by Hispanic immigration). Life in the secular mainstream has not proved to be all that healthy for the Church.

Notre Dame’s invitation to President Obama — an aggressive supporter of abortion “rights” who already has promulgated several anti-life policy decisions and threatens more — is part of this Americanist pattern. What could be more mainstream for a Catholic school, after all, than having the President of the United States as commencement speaker? That the official policy of the Catholic bishops of the United States rules it out evidently doesn’t matter.

“Quite a coup,” Kenneth L. Woodward, former Newsweek religion editor and a longtime Notre Dame booster, crowed on the op-ed page of The Washington Post. “Our voices must be raised to say that we are thrilled such a distinguished Catholic university is considered such a part of the life of the nation,” gushed an America magazine blogger named Michael Sean Winters.

At least since the time of Leo XIII, American Catholics have faced a choice between assimilation and counterculturalism. The emergence of legalized abortion makes that choice even more demanding. But Notre Dame’s invitation to Obama comes from the assimilationist heart of Catholic Americanism. The outrage it has produced is counterculturalism’s response. However this turns out, the argument will go on.

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C. You can email him at RShaw10290@aol.com.

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  • Bruce Roeder

    A well-timed article and worth reading!

    The “I’m Catholic, but …(fill in the blank with the dissident view here)” heresy is alive and well in the USA. For many US Catholics, faith that God can be trusted in what He says has been eclipsed by faith in public opinion polls (read – 55% of Catholics think women have the right to be ordained, so it’s okay for me to support priestesses too); hope in the promise of the Gospel has been replaced with hope that all Catholics can be accepted into the club (read – it’s an honor that the VP and Speaker of the House, an majority of the SCOTUS are Catholic, regardless of how pro-abortion their agendas are); love of Christ and His Church has been superceded by the love of convenience (read – yeah, I’m Catholic, but I won’t let all that dogma and Catholic guilt keep me from sterilizing myself).

    God’s goal for us is heaven, not prosperity or the White House. We are selling our inheritance for a bowl of new and improved, vitamin fortified pottage (and a set of Ginsu steak knives for the first fifty callers!).

    Help us see, O Lord!

  • plowshare

    It would be very interesting to know whether the initiative for this invitation came from Notre Dame or from the White House.

    Whatever the answer, though, it is obvious that by accepting the invitation to Notre Dame (thereby leaving room for one less invitation to a more prestigious university), the Obama Administration is using Notre Dame as a pawn in its game to make it seem like its radical pro-abortion agenda is quite acceptable to “mainstream” Catholics and other Christians.

    I doubt, for instance, that criticism of Obama’s abortion policies by the Notre Dame Administration (promised by President Jenkins, to blunt the edge of criticism) will be publicly broadcast. Instead I expect Jenkins to rationalize that a strictly private appeal is likely to have a stronger effect on Obama.

  • Richard

    I simply cannot believe that a “Catholic” institution could do this and continue to identify as “Catholic”. To be “Catholic” requires adherence to specific beliefs and actions. We do not make it up as we go along, our faith has been in place and well defined for 2000 years. Our understanding of the basics may grow but the underlying truth remains the same.

  • DWC

    Richard, as you probably know, and most on this site know .. this liberalization of catholic ed is nothing new. Unfortunately, hidden behind the veil of education, inclusion, tolerance and free speech has been countless examples of “catholic” schools ignoring the faith at best, corrupting at worst, to not only their students, but everyone else.

  • Mathew 25:45
    Then he will say to them, ‘I tell you with certainty, since you didn’t do it for one of the least important of these, you didn’t do it for me.’

    What you do the the unborn you do to Christ.

    Jack 19:14-16
    Now it was the Preparation Day for the Commencement, about noon. Obama said to the Catholics, “Here is your king!” Then they shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Abort him!”

    Obama asked them, “Should I abort your king?” The Regents of ND responded, “We have no king but Caesar!” Then Obama handed them over to be aborted, and they took the children away and butchered them.

  • fatherjo

    The best explanation of Americanism I have read or heard to date, including a personal interview with Msgr. John Tracy Ellis, foremost historian of American Catholicism.

  • irish_2171

    on another similar note…..Notre Dame receives federal $$ and/or grants. It’s nice to have the money, but there are always strings attached. Sad as it is, these liberal Catholics are trying to convince themselves that what they believe is not maintstream, but ethical and in accord with Church doctrine. Unfortunately for them, it is neither. It’s never easy to do the right thing. And some day they will have to answer for their actions, this is for certain. Hopefully down deep in their souls they will come to understand this and turn away from their liberal non-sense. I’ll do my best to bring them to the feet of Christ, but they are going to have to put their free-will (satan) aside and let Christ show them the Way.

  • JimAroo

    My understanding is that the local ordinary, in this case Bishop D’Arcy of Fort Wayne/South Bend has virtual unilateral power to do the following actions:

    1) remove his permission to have any Mass said at Notre Dame
    2) order closed any Blessed sacrament chapel on campus
    3) remove the faculties of any priests at Notre Dame to preach or hear confessions
    4) declare that Notre Dame is no longer a Catholic University

    These powers are his and there is no appeal. It seems to me that this Bishop, who is a good man it seems, is holding all the cards – exercising even the threat of some or all of these powers would have a convincing effect on the University. The school depends on the support and donations of thousands of alumni…. who would all stop donating to a formerly Catholic school.

    Go for it, Bishop. My experience tells me that all liberals like Father Jenkins
    are cowards…. he will buckle.

  • gk


    The invite came from ND. Obama has everything to gain and nothing to lose.

    As a selfish Catholic I gave up on ND years ago. It is sad when Catholicism is just another label like Aeropostale or Nike. Might as call ND a Jewish school too. Or maybe a private school and just leave it at that. I do hope and pray that ND comes back and actually accepts it Catholic identity. I say let it fall like the rest of weak Catholicism. Let it fall into mediocrity and luke warmness. It stands for nothing. People ought to see that and stop supporting it.

    gk – God is good!

  • dedleman

    Greetings from Philly!! Our local “Catholic” university – Saint Joseeph’s is having Chris Matthews from MSNBC as their commencement speaker in May. Another pro abortionist at a Catholic university getting an honorary degree!!

    they must not want to be out done by ND!!

    Pray for these people!!

  • nonamincher

    Simply this. The good Bishop must excercise his authority over this school for the good of all souls under his care,and The Church everywhere. This is not just a little ‘misunderstanding’ of what it means to be a Catholic school, or even a Catholic person. It would be naive to think so. President Obama isn’t going to be so moved by the University’s invitation that he will suddenly say, “Oh, now I understand– Thanks for the truth.” These ‘catholic’ administrators at Notre Dame know what they are doing. They share a political vision of church with those who have been about destroying The Church from within and without. They have already taken this school from Our Lady and The Church; a grave tragedy. It remains for The Church to recognize this unfortunate sell-out, and most importantly, to put an end to allowing anti- Catholic Church, anti- life, anti- christian politicians of the left to use Her to present an image before the world of the acceptability and even ‘righteousness’ of their views. The Church does not ‘progress’ beyond the myth of God, evolve past the myth of His unchanging Truth, and accept the pragmatic ‘reality’ of the world’s truth. This is beyond ‘tolerant’ Americanism, or Modernism and Relativism. This is an age- old battle. Study the history of The Church. Read Archbishop Chaput’s Article on “Tolerance is Not a Virtue”