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Clarifying ‘Catholic Character’ at ND

Gary Caruso | Friday, April 7, 2006

This week marked a great and courageous day for Notre Dame’s new president, Father John Jenkins. For the first time since the term of former Notre Dame president Theodore Hesburgh, a University leader established a balanced, inclusive and well-thought policy defining Notre Dame. It is a moment every friend and family member of Notre Dame should remember.

Nearly a quarter of American Christians consider themselves Catholic, but many seldom attend mass regularly. For them, the character of the Roman Catholic Church is lacking – perhaps not as much for its dogma as for the Church’s inability to effectively connect on an individual level. They are not convinced that the message from the gospel matches the actions of Church leaders. A similar disconnect between University actions and rhetoric has certainly disenfranchised a significant portion of Notre Dame alumni for many years.

Father Jenkins, in confronting a contentious issue now on campus, has set a fair policy for generations to come. It was embarrassing to claim that Catholics, and Notre Dame specifically, adhered to the life and mission of Jesus’ service to others while not even recognizing that gay students existed in the universe, let alone could meet on campus. Somehow the fear of bad publicity perpetuated a series of similarly negative impressions of Notre Dame. Jenkins is the first campus leader who truly displays King Solomon’s biblical sensibilities and wisdom.

In this era of hourly news cycles, religion is ridiculed – but many times for good reason. When the spokesperson for a leading American Catholic organization appears on political cable programs to assert that a secular movement is removing Christ out of Christmas, many wonder if he is fairly representing Catholics who respect the fact that non-Christians do not recognize the holiday. The confusion for non-Christians is as baffling as our lack of understanding for Muslim riots over a cartoon joke of Mohammed. Neither side attempts to bridge the divide with the other.

Last week, a segment of so-called Christians met in Washington, D.C., to whine about our society’s attack on Christianity. They claimed that gays are attacking marriage, secularists are attacking Christmas and liberals are attacking values. Their cries defy the truth of the Word as they attempt to deceive goodhearted folks for personal political power and greed.

The conference attempted to connect how Jesus could have had a good word about war in certain circumstances, how torture should be included in CIA operational manuals or how Jesus could support tax cuts for the wealthy because, after all, it is our money. Their vitriolic hate of foreigners forbids even their own followers from ministering to a wayward undocumented immigrants in this great and free (only for them) nation. While claiming how everyone else is attacking all that is holy to them, they in turn attempt to attack their followers’ wallets.

Sadly, Catholics get swept up in this illogical reversal of the definitions of values and morality. Religion is a personal and private matter. Catholics are fortunate that their service is universal and is seeded in a long history dating back to Jesus. No other religion can claim to have been the first, although Martin Luther defied the Church with his interpretation of Christ’s original teachings. Luther’s break, and every succeeding religious element that claims to follow Jesus, regardless of how strange its precepts may seem, are a matter of interpretation … including the early Roman Catholic Church.

Inasmuch as Jenkins has balanced liberal thought with conservative dogma at Notre Dame, he has freed everyone to officially respect others without confrontation. No longer at Notre Dame does one need to claim to be “attacked” like the Christian conference did last week. Gone at Notre Dame is the self-righteousness of those who, rather than debate others, attempt to quiet and discredit them.

Nobody advocating equal protection through civil unions (marriage rights without the word “marriage”) ever wanted to force any religion to marry them. President John F. Kennedy set the standard that no publicly elected American Catholic needs to answer to the Vatican, but to the constituents who placed their confidences in that official. Nobody is forcing Christians to now celebrate Hanukkah or Kwanzaa in December. Notre Dame is saying, “Get over the us versus them mentality in favor of respect and understanding.”

Last night, a television commercial stopped me in mid sentence. People who appeared to be gay, interracially married, old or of minority heritage sat in church pews but suddenly were ejected out of the screen as though in a fighter plane. The United Church of Christ (www.ucc.org) sponsored the advertisement that simply read, “Religion does not exclude. Religion includes everyone.”

President Jenkins’ Closing Statement on Academic Freedom and Catholic Character proclaims that message for Notre Dame. It is a great day on campus. Seniors who are our next generation of American Catholic leaders should take that message to heart, both in the political and spiritual aspects of their lives. While it takes effort from all of us to reach out to others, Jenkins has articulated a framework that is neither liberal or conservative, but one for which all of us can be proud.

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ’73, is a political strategist who served as a legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer