What ‘Church’ Does Notre Dame Belong To?

Of all the commentary I’ve read on Notre Dame’s decision to invite President Obama to receive an honorary doctorate of laws as the university’s 2009 commencement speaker, the most disturbing came from Father Kenneth Himes of the Boston College theology department. In a Boston Globe story about Professor Mary Ann Glendon’s courageous (and correct) decision to decline Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal because the university had defied the U.S. bishops’ policy barring honors for pro-abortion politicians at Catholic events, Father Himes said this:

There are some well-meaning people who think Notre Dame has given away its Catholic identity, because they have been caught up in the gamesmanship of American higher education, bringing in a star commencement speaker even if that means sacrificing their values, and that accounts for some of this …. But one also has to say that there is a political game going on here, and part of that is that you demonize the people who disagree with you, you question their integrity, you challenge their character, and you brand these people as moral poison. Some people have simply reduced Catholicism to the abortion issue, and consequently, they have simply launched a crusade to bar anything from Catholic institutions that smacks of any sort of open conversation.

I trust Father Himes is not referring here to Professor Glendon, or William McGurn of the Wall Street Journal, or Father Wilson Miscamble, CSC, of the Notre Dame faculty, or me, or other serious critics of Notre Dame’s decision. For if Father Himes is suggesting that any of us has demonized the president, branded him “moral poison,” reduced Catholicism to the abortion issue, or summoned a crusade to eliminate debate at Catholic colleges and universities, he is perilously close to committing calumny. Yes, there are self-serving nuts in the forest, some of whom have seized the Obama/Notre Dame issue for their own purposes. By why does Father Himes waste time bashing fringe crazies? Why not engage the arguments of the serious critics? Why not attempt a theologically coherent defense of what seems an incomprehensible decision—awarding an honorary doctorate of laws to a man determined to enshrine in law something the Catholic Church regards as a gross violation of justice?

Another colleague (and Notre Dame grad), Professor Russell Hittinger, who holds the William K. Warren Chair in Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa, clarified one key facet of this controversy in an e-mail. Notre Dame, he suggested, has adopted a “purely American low-church position of [institutional] autonomy,” by acting as if the local bishop, John D’Arcy, has nothing to say to which the university must pay serious attention—although Bishop D’Arcy, a longtime Notre Dame booster, was speaking for the settled position of the American episcopate in asking the university’s president, Father John Jenkins, CSC, to reconsider his decision to honor Obama. As Professor Hittinger continued, this fracas “has nothing to do with academic freedom nor with ecclesiastical supervision of routine academic procedures and judgments. It is ecclesiological all the way down—what Church is Notre Dame ‘in,’ if any? … Notre Dame is speaking and acting as though it were not a member of the local Church, let alone Rome.”

That’s exactly right. There’s also a high-stakes “political game” here, though not the one Father Himes suggests. The Obama administration is full of very smart political operators. Reading last November’s electoral entrails, they’ve sensed the possibility of driving a wedge through the Catholic community in America, dividing Catholics from their bishops and thus securing the majority Catholic vote Obama received in 2008. And they’ve shrewdly judged that the soft underbelly of Catholic resistance to the Obama administration’s radical agenda on the life issues is composed of Catholic intellectuals, their prestige institutions (like Notre Dame and Georgetown), and their opinion journals—the very people and opinion centers who claimed last year that Obama was the true pro-life candidate. It’s a clever move on the political chessboard, and barring extraordinary actions from the bishops, it will likely meet with considerable success.

Politics aside, though, the crucial question remains this: just what Church are Notre Dame and its supporters “in,” anyway?

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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  • eyeclinic

    I predict that Notre Shame will proceed with this travesty, getting squarely in the face of the Catholic Bishops. The Bishops will hand-wring and essentially do nothing, further marginalizing the USCCB. They remind me of one of those old toys that roll around on a table but never fall off the edge, instead redirecting itself to other areas of the table. The USCCB needs to fall off, so as to regain an appreciation for the danger that lies beyond the precipice.

  • LarryW2LJ

    “Some people have simply reduced Catholicism to the abortion issue, and consequently, they have simply launched a crusade to bar anything from Catholic institutions that smacks of any sort of open conversation.” – Father Kenneth Himes

    I’m a lowly, fanny-in-the-pew every Sunday Roman Catholic. I graduated from 2 year colleges and have a couple of Associates Degrees. I’m not, by an means, what you would brand a member of the “intelligentsia”. My grandfather, God rest his soul, always told me, way back in the 60s, that there were two kinds of “smarts” – book smarts and common sense.

    It seems like some of our priests are all “book smarts” and don’t have two small pieces of common sense to rub together and I mean you, Fr. Himes.

    By being pro-life we are not reducing Catholicism to one issue. Bv being pro-life and by affirming a culture of life, we are, as a community, affirming our belief in the building block from where all social justice flows.

    I truly believe that Jesus would not have been splitting hairs if this had been the issue d’jour in His time. While He would have loved, forgiven and given mercy to anyone who had undergone this vile procedure (who was repentant for it). He would have no tolerance for the sin itself. And while He might have sat down to talk with these people, He would have not done anything to validate them or appease them. There can be no conversation or open dialogue with that which is intrinsically evil and opposed to the Truth. If you think there can be; you are kidding yourself.

    You know, as a Catholic, every Easter, we renew our baptismal promises. When you answer “I do” when asked if you reject Satan and all his works and empty promises – do you mean it? Or is there “rationalization and finesse” to that too?

    Larry W2LJ

  • slbute

    When our Lord was questioned by King Herod, Scripture tells us he remained silent. He would not validate or appease him by answering his questions. Pride seems to be the underlying barrier in the Notre Dame scandal as it was in Jesus’ Passion. I suspect our Lord prayed for these blind fools, but would not appease them. We must do the same.

  • ram316xyz

    One more example of an institution, university, organization or person that claims to be Catholic, but they are “Catholic In Name Only”, CINO. The Church can not change its teachings as given to it by God. We must respect human life from conception to natural death. The USCCB had made it perfectly clear NOT to give any HONORS to those who disrespect human life in all its stages. If the infant in the womb cannot be protected what can those of us who survived birth expect from our government leaders and other institutions? What is to happen to the Holy bonds of marriage? Will Catholics accept the will of God or the will of secular society? We must love and pray for all our brothers and sisters in Christ especially those who need it the most. May our Heavenly Mother and her spouse the Holy Spirit guide and protect the university named in her honor.


    Excellent and intruiging piece especially the prospect that the Obama administration planned and siezed upon this to further divide the Catholic vote. If correct, then the stated position of ND that this is an opportunity to foster ‘dialogue” is completely and utterly false.

    Unfortunately, I believe Mr.Weigel is correct in many aspects, but I think the so called Catholic vote has been divided long before this ND scandal. I believe the Pope himself has warned that we may begin to see a smaller Church in the future because all of these core tenents of the Church either need to be re-affirmed and supported or what do we have left? The question becomes not just what Church ND belongs to but what Church do we all belong to?

    This ND scandal to me is a just a very visible (made for TV) microcosm of the issue with our Church today. We have Catholics who for one reason or another have moved away from core and central teaching of the Church, who do not attend Mass on Sundays and according to recent polls a significant number do not believ in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Believe me as a volunteer 7th grade CCD teacher- we have what I would decsribe as a lost generation or even two (children I teach and their parents) who have no clue what the Church teaches and while they call themselves Catholic are sort of practicing something quasi-Catholic. This is not meant to condemn or bash these folks, but it is the issue and problem we face as a Church. The ND issue is just a very visible face of a huge and growing problem in our Holy Roman Catholic Church in the USA

  • Dora

    This scandal was caused by pure and simple DISOBEDIENCE, the sin of the fallen angels and Adam and Eve, fallen man. And there is a lot of that going on in the Catholic Church today, in this country especially, but elsewhere, as well. “I will not serve!” say all those cafeteria Catholics. “I will not obey!” “I’ll will choose whatever I want and the Church cannot tell me otherwise.” “I will invite Obama or whomever I please and not the Bishop, nor anybody in authority over me, can make me rescind the invitation.”

    There are many disobedient children in our Church today and I fear it will get worse before it gets better. The Bishops MUST discipline priests and the faithful as they are supposed to do, instead of hiding in their chanceries and running away from the problem. They must stand for TRUTH, no matter what. I applaud those Bishops who have taken a stand for truth, life, and obedience in this scandal. The Notre Dame board will do nothing; most of them are in awe of Obama, too, and will do nothing. Are they even Catholic? Are they practicing Catholics? All those who are responsible for this scandal should be disciplined or removed. I say that the Catholic Church must become so orthodox in this country, that all those “quasi-Catholics, as Michael says, will have to make a decision whether to believe and practice what the Catholic Church teaches or leave and find a religion that suits them. And we as a Church must do everything we can to catechize those who want to stay and be obedient to God and to the Church. We will then become a stronger Church, but most importantly be pleasing to God and a witness of true faith to the world. Then many will come and believe in Jesus Christ, Whom we preach to others, using words when necessary. In the meantime, ask our Blessed Lady, the true Notre Dame, to intercede powerfully before the throne of Jesus, to deliver us from the evils that are ravaging our children, our universities, our families, our Church and this country! God bless all of you who know the truth and stand for it, whether convenient or inconvenient!
    And God bless all you pro-lifers out there, especially those who may be feeling discouraged or depressed right now. As St. Padre Pio always said, “Pray, hope, and don’t worry!”

  • JimAroo

    Forget the USCCB in regards to this issue.

    The one holding all the cards is Bishop D’Arcy. As i understand the rules he could do any or all of the following actions unilaterally:
    1) He could declare UND as no longer a Catholic university.
    2) He could remove the ability of any priest at UND to hear confessions or preach (these faculties are totally in his hands).
    3) He could suspend his approval for any church, chapel, or Blessed Sacrament chapel at the University.
    4) He could forbid Mass to be said on the campus property.

    There are probably other powers he has but in any case he seems to be holding all the cards…. he doesn’t need the approval of anyone to do these things.

    Bishop D’Arcy? I believe it’s your move.

  • goral

    The bishops have already made a gutsy move – no Communion on the tongue until this scourge that is decimating and demoralizing the faithful is completely under control. McDonalds on the other hand has taken a wait and see approach.

    Folks, this is very logical. They are just honoring the guy for whom they voted, thereby reaffirming their way of thinking.
    This is the church of Jesus Christ of later day catholics who think for themselves very nicely, thank you!

    If we want to preserve the Union of the Catholic Church then we’re going to have to go to war like Lincoln did. We’ll have to call the heretics out by their names.
    For now the bishops are not breaking any ranks to make that gutsy move.

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  • LarryW2LJ


    Well, folks …. the issue has made it to Time Magazine; and in essence, they’re laughing at us and enjoying the fact that the Roman Catholic Church in America is falling apart.

  • Cooky642

    LarryW2LJ, thanks for yesterday’s post; today’s is a bit of a let-down. Who cares what Time magazine (or the whole Turner corp., for that matter) thinks of the Church? Ted & Co. are only slightly less anti-Catholic than the Masons!

    The Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. is NOT “falling apart”! There are some of us who love the Church and the Son of God Who founded her passionately! And then, there are the others. I refer to them as “cultural Catholics”–people who grew up in a Catholic home, received the Catholic sacraments, and don’t have (nor want!) anything to do with Jesus. And yes, some of them are priests and bishops. That does not mean the Church is falling apart. It just means that a lot of people are “playing games” with religion. I have long predicted a schism, here: the progressives forming the American Catholic Church where they can democratically dilly-dally to their hearts’ content, and the traditionalists taking the Roman Catholic Church underground. Be ready!


    When the world condemns and ridicules us should we be surprised? I think we are entering and perhaps are already in an error of new persecution- albeit a different form; more subtle now, but will become more obvious as time moves on.

    But should we be afraid? Obviously NO! Remember the word of Jesus,

    “Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

  • LarryW2LJ


    Poor choice of words on my part. Yes, the Roman Catholic Church in America is not falling apart. But it is headed towards schism. I fully agree with you on that. There will be an American Catholic Church and a Roman Catholic Church – I can see it coming. And the media loves it and is doing their best to exacerbate it. As for me and my family, we will remain faithful to the Magesterium; and we will pray for those who will not.

  • bkeebler

    I wake up every morning hardly believing that I am not still dreaming. I knew the world would decay and become more corrupt, that the “signs” were there and we were being asked to stay sober and pray, but it was hard to know how quickly things could deteriorate. The surreal world we live in of the legal violent murder of babies in the sacred protection of a mother’s womb is unthinkable but here it is, millions upon millions of times over, and that is only a part of the evils that plague us. I wonder too how the Church will survive such an onslaught from the devil and his cohort or demons, but then I am reminded (and I know in the depths of my soul) She is the Body of Christ, Christ is with Her. This constant attack seems daunting but we are not alone, and as lights of Truth may seem to be extinguished, as some lights seemed to be snuffed out, we can be assured they are not. Like embers fanned by the winds of the Holy Spirit, the Truth will not give up, on the contrary it will tenaciously blaze the trail.


    Just watched the highlight of Obama speech at ND and am in state of shock that he received such a long and even warm standing ovation. I think this illustrates the points made larry and cooky above- we have a huge dicotomy within the Catholic Church right now.

  • elkabrikir

    Perhaps WE are having a crisis of faith: meaning we who consider ourselves faithful sons and daughters of the Church. Meaning we who are grafted onto the vine and who lovingly bear, in pain, the sweet fruit of obedience: White martyrdom.

    Jesus consoled us 2000 years ago with these words, destined to reach “ears that can hear”, until the end of the age.

    “Blessed are they when you are reviled and cursed on account of my name, for the Kingdom of Heaven is yours…. Rejoice and be glad!”

    Believe what he prophesized and return thanks and praise for the gift of living during this time in history when you can prove your love for God through your steadfast faith. Rejoice that you see the face of Christ in the unborn. And pray for your enemies. What a gift we’ve been given. Use it for your salvation. In turn, maybe you can bring others along, or maybe not. For, we are saved individually. “Do not fear little flock……”

    I feel a serene joy deep in my soul which will not be taken from me by the media minions of the Evil One or by those who have not been washed clean in the blood of the Lamb.

    “Take courage, it is I” who allow you to suffer on my account, says the Lord. The victory has been won!!


    Now, allow the fire of peace to consume you with zeal for his Kingdom. Discern where you are called to serve as Jesus’ hands and feet. We are at war with the principalities so put on the :

    Belt of truth: The belt was the first thing a soldier put on. It was very important because it gathered together his tunic and insured that he could march without restriction. Truth of heart is the foundation of your spiritual armour. Sincerity in your relationship with Christ is crucial. This relationship is based on doctrinal truth. Truth of heart holds things together like a belt holds a soldier’s tunic together.
    Helmet of salvation: The helmet safeguards your mind with the hope of salvation. We must be cautious what we fill our minds with. It is our saving help from the power of sin. (mind your mind video by Carman)
    Shield of faith: Your faith can see you through…avoid the devil’s darts of doubt. It was a very large shield that protected the whole body.
    Breast plate of righteousness: Guard your heart with righteousness. To neglect what we know to be righteous action is to leave a gaping hole in our armour.
    Shoes of peace: Walk the walk. The soldiers shoes were designed for long hard marches. The shoes give us the ability to stand firm against the devil. The shoes are also for the readiness to spread the gospel.
    Sword of the spirit: God’s word is our weapon. It is our weapon to cut through defences and prick peoples conscience. It also helps us to avoid temptation. (taken from Bread of Life ministries)
    And Pray! Pray! Pray! Pray the Rosary and the St Michael Prayer for our country

  • Cooky642

    LarryW2LJ, your “poor choice of words” got us both to stand up and be counted. Good work, kiddo. My “house” will not (now, maybe later)serve the Lord, but I am totally committed to the Body and Blood of Jesus regardless of who–or, how many–stand against me. We’ll stand together, shall we?

    bkeebler, I’m with you! I foresaw every last move that’s been made in the last 4 months (and more to come!), but I never expected them to come so quickly. It’s been breath-taking, but every new move on Mr. Obama’s part just brings a smile to my face and a bounce to my step: we are closer, today, than we were yesterday!

    Elkabriker, my dear friend, thank you for reminding us that this ‘White Martyrdom’ is ours to REJOICE in! May God be praised for counting us ‘worthy’! And, if it should turn into ‘Red Martyrdom’, may God be praised in that, too! My favorite part of the quote from Eph. 6 is verse 13c & 14a: “…and, having done all, to STAND. Therefore, STAND!” (emphasis mine). Shoulder-to-shoulder, brothers and sisters, let us STAND!

  • GaryT

    The whole purpose of not allowing pro-abortion politicians a platform to speak at Catholic functions was to not validate that position. That Obama took the opportunity to express his pro-abortion position AT A CATHOLIC institution speaks for the EXACT reason the bishops said this was a bad idea to begin with.
    I got the impression that he did so with Fr. Jenkins approval. If this were the case then perhaps Fr. Jenkins should not present himself for communion.

    Sadly George Weigel is correct about the political positions that the Obama administration is taking. The only way out is to make sure the Catholic Church finds a way to publicly state that ND or any other pro-choice Catholic does not speak for the RCC.

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