Confusion Confounded

Father John Jenkins, president of Notre Dame University, had a bad day yesterday. As almost everyone knows by now, Mary Ann Glendon – professor at the Harvard Law School, head of the Pontifical Commission on the Social Sciences, and recent ambassador to the Holy See – sent him a letter explaining why complications over the invitation of President Obama convinced her to withdraw from commencement this year, where she was supposed to receive the university’s Laetare Medal. (Full disclosure: Professor Glendon is on the advisory board of the Faith & Reason Institute, TCT’s parent institution, and a friend to several of TCT’s writers.)

This whole sad mess became tiresome long ago and promises to become even more so in the weeks until the president’s May 17 appearance at Notre Dame. But of course, that’s exactly why a good leader should be extremely prudent, in the strong old Catholic sense of the word, before he puts a highly visible institution in the middle of a swamp. The temptation to Schadenfreude over Professor Glendon’s letter is strong, and perhaps precisely for that very reason ought to be resisted. Because it is in no way a happy thing when a well known Catholic institution of higher learning finds itself in circumstances that will do neither it nor the Church any good.

Reliable people at Notre Dame say that Father Jenkins and his inner circle are not pro-abortion. Rather, they don’t think there’s much that can be done about it at present and want to be part of the national conversation on health care reform and other Catholic concerns. They also know you are not given a place at the Democrats’ table if you draw pro-life lines in the sand.

Professor Glendon is a pro-life Democrat who possesses great sophistication and horse sense. She was invited before Obama was announced. That announcement, she says, caused her to begin rewriting her remarks. Then, she learned of the honorary degree. By that point, the whole picture had become clear: high-handed attitudes towards the bishops and the Church, double talk about academic freedom and respectful dialogue, and a clumsy attempt to use her as political cover: “It is not the right place, nor is a brief acceptance speech the right vehicle, for engagement with the very serious problems raised by Notre Dame’s decision – in disregard of the settled position of the U.S. bishops – to honor a prominent and uncompromising opponent of the Church’s position on issues involving fundamental principles of justice.”

Note that uncompromising. No gaggle of hastily convened canon lawyers will be able to talk their way out of those well formulated charges.

There have been some elaborate guesses about “what Father Jenkins was thinking” when he decided to invite Obama. Sadly, he may not have been thinking very much since he rightly assumed he had a fair amount of local support. The ND faculty senate backed him. (People active in faculty politics tend to be activists.)

A Washington reporter reminded me yesterday that most ND students, though viscerally conservative, also “want Obama to be there.” I reminded her that most ND students probably want to get As without having to take exams, too, but the adults are supposed to run the campus.

The Notre Dame board happens to be on campus this week for its regularly scheduled meeting; we may see if there are adults present among them. According to one protest group, the university has already lost $8.2 million in withheld donations.

Notre Dame has already compounded its imprudence by announcing that it will award the Laetare Medal to someone else on May 17. Who? Well, there are a number of distinguished Catholics who could be considered, but what truly distinguished Catholic would want to step into this morass?

The White House, as White Houses will, engaged in spin control: “President Obama is disappointed by former Ambassador Mary Glendon’s decision, but he looks forward to delivering an inclusive and respectful speech at the Notre Dame graduation, a school with a rich history of fostering the exchange of ideas. While he is honored to have the support of millions of people of all faiths, he does not govern with the expectation that everyone sees eye to eye with him on every position, and the spirit of debate and healthy disagreement on important issues is part of what he loves about this country.”

That all sounds well and good, and very American and all that. But as Professor Glendon has pointed out: a graduation ceremony is not the place for an exchange of ideas. And we are already seeing the “ripple effect” as other Catholic institutions mimic Notre Dame in honoring pro-abortion figures.

John F. Kennedy famously went to Houston in 1960 to convince an audience of Protestant ministers that they could vote for him without qualms because the pope would never dictate his actions as president. A fair observer looking at his words on that occasion might think he went too far. But a fair observer might also think it noteworthy that the Protestants paid Catholicism enough respect to believe back then that it stood for something to be reckoned with. And the Catholic paid the Protestants enough respect to attempt to explain to them why their fears were mistaken.

For all the current talk of respect and dialogue, will Catholics look back on May 17, 2009 at Notre Dame with a sense that something was gained or lost?

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His latest book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West.

(c) 2009 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights write to: info at thecatholicthing dot org

The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

  • Concerned Catholic

    When is the Catholic Church going to open its eyes and cancel the President’s visit to Notre Dame? Why isn’t the Church standing up to the President? He is pro-abortion and anti-life; no other way to describe him except maybe anti-catholic. And the Church invites him?! If Church officials were to cancel this prominent visit, imagine the headines in the media! The Catholic church would make front page news on all the major networks. And because of doing what? Standing up for the sanctity of life.

  • Brad Miner

    Standing Up
    This is in reponse to Concerned Catholic. If by the “Catholic Church” standing up you mean the Vatican, well, the Holy Father and the Curia would have time for nothing else if they addressed every public error of every noted American who calls himself or herself Catholic. As it is, many bishops have spoken out against Notre Dame and Obama, and now America’s former Vatican ambassador has as well. It’s faithful Catholics who must stand up and are standing up.

  • Andrew

    Concerned Catholic,

    Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. Bishop D’Arcy of Fort Wayne/South Bend does not have direct control over the governance of Notre Dame. He has already done all he can by refusing to show up to commencement and chastising Fr. Jenkins in a very well-written letter. I agree that it would be wonderful if Obama were to be “un-invited”, but Fr. Jenkins has shown no signs of doing that. God help us.

  • Concerned Catholic

    Points well taken. Now it’s time for Notre Dame to stand up for what it’s supposed to. Or maybe the Church could luck out if the President came to understand the controvery and cancelled his visit. Time to pray.

  • Achilles

    Thank you MR.Royal for that article. As a new Catholic I have been stunned by the division in the Church. Though it took 40 years to get through my thick skull, at least I have an anti-Catholic family for an excuse. Catholics like Fr. Jenkins put their hubris before the magisterium, as Belloc said in Path to Rome doing the “St Vitus’ dance” the “shifty eyed intellectual” commits the sin of “intellectual pride.” He continues “no sin is more offensive to the angels.” God bless Mrs. Glendon

  • Matt

    University of Notre Dame
    It is not “Notre Dame University.” It is the “University of Notre Dame.”

    How can a site called “The Catholic Thing” not care to get that right?

  • Brian Keane

    Learning Director
    “And the Catholic paid the Protestants enough respect to attempt to explain to them why their fears were mistaken.” how could President to be Kennedy do that without agreeing to separate his Babtismal /Confirmation oath from the oath of his office to be? CAREER AND CANDIDATE CATHOLICS WERE SANCTIFIED BY Kennedy in the USA and shortly thereafter by Trudeau in Canada. and many like myself followed the new messiah(s). God please forgive us all

  • William H. Phelan

    This battle was lost when Notre Dame and other “Catholic” colleges and universities signed the infamous Land O’ Lakes Statement in 1967 and the Church(WHO IS THE CHURCH???) did nothing about it. Remember Gov. Cuomo in 1984? Bernardin at Fordham with his Seamless Garment? All these protests are too little too late. Move on to something else.

  • William Dennis

    Something good may come out of this brouhaha with these so called Catholic colleges. Most alumni are clueless about some of the leftist, progressive leanings in their beloved alma maters. This deception is to the advantage of the institution or most alumni would withdraw support. Church leaders can only do so much.The laity are most powerful. Money talks and the masquerade is ending. If one can judge a tree by its fruit, it is time to stop buying bad fruit. If ND lost big money. It’s in trouble

  • debby

    pre-Vat 2 President JFK
    So before Vat 2 a Catholic politician who was & still is WORSHIPED as the only Catholic US President assures Protestant clergy they dont have to worry about the Pope’s influence-let alone Jackie’s-& 50 yrs later the Catholic Church in America on every front, local parish to university to Conf of Bishops is under duress, has minimal influence in the social/cultural life of Americans, is suffering an identity crisis*WHAT IS IT TO BE CATHOLIC?* yada, yada
    and we are surprised?
    how stupid are we?

  • Ped Antic

    focus on the tiny details
    Dear Matt, Thank you ever so much for that clarification, now I know what University they are talking about. I can only imagine how many confused people have been put to rights after reading your comment. Sometimes a small reversal of words can make a world of difference and cause a whole lot of confusion. I hope you are a grammar teacher, becuase I think you have found your niche, master of the red pen. Keep up the excellent work matt. Ty.

  • Chuck

    We are losing something, our integrity! It’s one thing for Obama to come and speak and be prepared to debate, it’s entirely different to honor him. One is to be open to a discussion of ideas the other to hold up his beliefs as equally good and thus honorable. This does not foster what is good, but rather helps to confuse. In fact it harms the consciences of fellow Catholics who are less well formed in the faith and who are influenced by such a poor example. This is by definition scandal.

  • Robert Cheeks

    Why would a Catholic institution honor a man who is not only pro-abortion, but during his career as an Illinois state senator, voted to allow babies who survived failed abortions to starve to death….don’t Catholics consider that murder….but then how could they get a “seat at the table.”

  • Matt

    Dear “Ped Antic”: Why, you are ever so welcome. I appreciate your effusive praise; however, most people were not confused. Most readers knew exactly what Mr. Royal meant and did not need to be, as you fascinatingly say, “put to rights.” I still harbor the (outdated?) notion that a publication should honor basic principles of journalism by calling institutions by their proper names. But what can I say? My Catholic education taught me a precision and an excellence that many do not share.

  • William Dennis

    To Matt
    I am intrigued by your critcism of the appellation, ” Notre Dame University.”  I personally don’t see what difference it makes to the substance of this fine article.  No doubt you are a journalist “par excellence.”  Do you have a website or a journal of your own? If you do please enlighted us. I would like to see it.

  • Vincent C. Muscarello

    Interesting–and very charitable–analysis. Mr. Rubin is spot on with respect to what the students think. Next to the President, they would gladly have Jon Bon Jovi speak to them. This decision should have been made responsibly by the adults in the room . Not sure the analogy of Kennedy the CANDIDATE meeting his adversaries is apt for Obama the President at ND. Prof. Glendon characterized both the man and the situation properly–uncompromising. He has the power. ND has capitulated.

  • Vincent C. Muscarello

    An additional thought if I may: Mr. Royal may be correct in his estimation of Fr. Jenkins’ mental calculus on this matter. If so, he would be in keeping with 25 years of ND silencing herself on abortion to get a seat at the table. Prof. Glendon hopefully has alerted the university that conferring an honorary degree is a bridge too far. The battle on health care is about to start. If ND silences herself again on sanctity of life, what becomes of our elderly when health care rationing starts?

  • William H. Phelan

    Mr. Royal: One last comment from me. Thank you for an excellent article. I appreciate your time and your thoughts. The Archdiocese of N.Y. had announced that some colleges were no longer Catholic- Marist and Marymount Manhattan come to mind. Perhaps that same step should be taken vis a vis Notre Dame and others.

  • Ped Antic

    Smart alechhe
    Dear Matt, That was mean spirited of me, I am sorry. I do agree with you it is just that so many times people get hung up on the small details and miss the big picture, you are obviously not one of those people so I am ashamed of my own pedantic behavior. I hope I have caused only a little offense, you are a gentleman. Pax, ty