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Bring Notre Dame back

Charles E. Rice | Monday, April 27, 2009

Notre Dame’s honoring of President Obama is no surprise. It is a predictable result of a change of course that Catholic universities made four decades ago. In 1967, officials of the leading Catholic universities met at the Notre Dame retreat at Land O’Lakes, Wisconsin, and declared that: “To perform its teaching and research functions effectively, the Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.” Most Catholic universities, including Notre Dame, soon severed their juridical connection with the Church and transferred control to lay-dominated boards of trustees. As Fordham President Leo McLaughlin had earlier observed, one reason was to “make them eligible for federal and state aid.”

At Notre Dame the Fellows have the leading role. “From 1842 to 1967 [Notre Dame] was owned by the Congregation of Holy Cross. In 1967, governance … was transferred to a predominantly lay Board of Trustees [and] the Statutes of the University created a body … known as The Fellows. They have … all power and authority granted by [the charter of the University]. The Fellows are a self-perpetuating body, 12 in number, six … are [Holy Cross priests] and six … are lay persons … [T]he establishment of the Fellows was intended to be a protective mechanism for the University.” The Holy Cross priests who are six of the 12 Fellows, if united, can prevent any University action of which they disapprove. The Fellows also have the duty to maintain the “essential character of the University as a Catholic institution.”

Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the 1990 Apostolic Constitution on Catholic Universities, does not require the Catholic university to have a juridical connection with the Church. But the university does have an “essential relationship” to the Church which “includes a recognition of and adherence to the teachings of the church in matters of faith and morals.” It is difficult to imagine a more flagrant disrespect for those teachings than Notre Dame’s bestowal of its highest honors on a person with the record and stated purposes of Obama.

The problem is “truth in labeling.” For four decades Notre Dame has promoted itself as a “Catholic university,” according to its own private definition rather that that of the Church which alone has authority to define that term. ND 2010, the strategic plan, says the University “must take into account with … sensitivity and respect the formal teaching role of the Magisterium in the life of the Church.” But Notre Dame does not accept Church teaching as binding on the University. The Magisterium is practically irrelevant. Thus, in their April 2, 2008, “statement on the rationale for hiring faculty who will enhance our Catholic mission,” Fr. Jenkins and the Provost, Dr. Burish, went on for six pages about keeping Notre Dame “truly Catholic” without once mentioning the Catholic Church. That is like explaining the game of baseball without mentioning the ball.

Our leaders’ pursuit of autonomy from the Church fosters a relativism which has eroded Catholic identity, as in the reduction of Catholic faculty. In the 1970s, before Notre Dame, in 1978, proclaimed itself a “research university,” more than 80 percent of the Notre Dame faculty identified themselves as Catholic. In 1986 it was 64 percent. Now it is 53 percent and going south with little prospect for change.

The Land O’Lakes “autonomy … in the face of [external] authority” is a fake. Notre Dame accepts the authority of the federal government and dozens of other entities, such as the NCAA, as well as the secular academic establishment. One authority it will not accept is that of the Catholic Church to define the meaning of a “Catholic university.” This problem is not peculiar to Notre Dame. “In the United States,” said the late Cardinal Avery Dulles, “Catholic universities have been very apologetic, almost embarrassed, by their obligation to adhere to the faith of the Church. For [Cardinal John Henry] Newman and John Paul II, any university that lacks the guidance of Christian revelation and the oversight of the Catholic magisterium is … impeded in its mission to find and transmit truth. It fails to make use of an important resource that God in His providence has provided. Surrounded by powerful institutions constructed on principles of metaphysical and religious agnosticism, the Catholic universities … have too long been on the defensive … They should proudly reaffirm the essentials of their own tradition.” The first step in that reaffirmation would be to repudiate Land O’Lakes.

Our leaders do not own Notre Dame. They are temporary fiduciaries with a duty to preserve its Catholic character. They violated that duty by severing it from the Church. And now, as the nation finds itself with a president who, through cloning and embryonic stem cell research, will fund the creation of human beings to kill them, who will end conscience rights for health care personnel, etc., our leaders have a duty to witness to truth. Instead, they have assumed the role of the sycophant by conferring Notre Dame’s highest honors on that man in defiance of the mandate of the U.S. bishops.

The trajectory from Land O’Lakes to honoring Obama is a straight line. The stakes are high. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, discussed in 2002 the posting of angels east of Eden with flaming swords to keep man, after the Fall, from eating of the Tree of Life which gave immortality. “[T]o be immortal in this [fallen] condition would … be perdition.” People are now, Ratzinger said, “starting to pick from the tree of life and make themselves lords of life and death, to reassemble life …Precisely what man was … to be protected from is now … happening: he is crossing the final boundary … [M]an makes other men his own artifacts. Man no longer originates in the mystery of love … but is produced industrially, like any other product.”

“We can,” said Ratzinger, “be certain of this: God will take action to counter an ultimate crime, an ultimate act of self-destruction, on the part of man. He will take action against the attempt to demean mankind by the production of slave-beings. There are … final boundaries we cannot cross without turning into the agents of destruction of creation itself.”

Our last column presented the suggestion of an alumnus that our best response to the honoring of Obama would be a continuous Rosary of reparation and petition at the Grotto during the time of Commencement, from 2-4 p.m. on May 17. If you can’t be there, pray the Rosary wherever you are at that time. Either way, pray to Notre Dame, Our Lady, for our country. And pray that she will bring Notre Dame, her University, back to the Church of her Son.

Prof. Emeritus Rice is on the law school faculty. He may be reached at 574-633-4415, or at [email protected]

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