News Analysis

Since honouring President Obama, Notre Dame has become ever more secular

Amid all of the scandals in the American Church over the past decade, nothing has provoked a more dramatic display of outrage and unity than the protest 10 years ago against the University of Notre Dame’s choice to honour President Barack Obama (pictured). Yet Notre Dame’s leaders seem not to have learnt their lesson. A decade later, America’s most well-known Catholic university continues to slide toward secularisation.

When a college chooses a commencement speaker or honorary degree recipient, it is a clear, public statement of a college’s values and the sort of person that the college admires – a role model for students. Whereas faithful Catholic colleges will often honour Catholic bishops, noted academics, pro-life advocates and other people with strong character, Notre Dame fatefully chose the most pro-abortion president in history to address graduates on May 17, 2009.

Notre Dame’s statement to the world was that the Catholic university – and by implication, the Catholic Church – honours and celebrates those who attack human dignity and threaten the lives of innocent babies. American Catholics were faced with a choice of their own: to tacitly condone this compromise or stand up to declare the truth.

Thankfully, critics gave a powerful witness. By the day of the commencement ceremony, 83 American bishops stood firmly and publicly against the Notre Dame honour, citing their 2004 statement “Catholics in Political Life” that strongly admonished Catholic institutions not to give honours or platforms to “those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles”. More than 367,000 people signed the Cardinal Newman Society’s petition urging Notre Dame to rescind its invitation. Offended students even held an alternative graduation ceremony in the campus prayer grotto.

And still, Notre Dame’s leaders thumbed their noses at the faithful. At the commencement ceremony, President Obama eagerly took the opportunity to declare, once again, his support for abortion. And on the stage was Fr Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, the former Notre Dame president who had hosted Governor Mario Cuomo for his landmark speech defending abortion rights and led efforts to distance Catholic universities from Church authority. Fr John Jenkins, CSC, the university’s current leader, preceded Obama’s address with a public defence of the university’s choice to honour him.

In the years since, Notre Dame has moved incrementally toward a more secular education. There remain many professors who faithfully serve God in their teaching and their personal witness, but Notre Dame’s leaders – by their public actions and decisions – display a lack of concern about violating the university’s Catholic mission and reluctance to challenge secular culture.

For instance, two years ago Notre Dame announced that it would allow coverage of contraceptives in its employee health plan, citing a “plurality of religious and other convictions among its employees”. The move contradicts the US bishops’ teaching as well as the university’s own lawsuit filed in 2014, against the Obama administration’s mandate for insurance coverage of sterilisation, abortifacients and other contraceptives.

This year, Fr Jenkins rejected students’ plea for a simple filter to block pornography sites from the campus internet service. The Catholic University of America, by contrast, eagerly embraced a similar student request.

As for academics, Notre Dame acknowledges difficulty maintaining a faculty that is at least half Catholic – by which it means baptised Catholics, not necessarily faithful ones. Students praise some wonderful Catholic professors, but overall they indicate that the education is getting increasingly secular and politically correct. No one doubts that it compares favourably to most Jesuit universities. Nevertheless, what the late Charles Rice, a Notre Dame law professor, once told the Cardinal Newman Society still applies: a well-formed student who carefully seeks out faithful friends and professors can fare well, but “a kid who is struggling with his faith will sink like a stone”.

As for speaking platforms and honours, it appears that Notre Dame has no interest in preventing further scandal. Just last year the university honoured Indiana Governor Joseph Kernan with its 2018 Rev Edward F Sorin, CSC, Award. The governor is a Catholic who advocates keeping abortion legal. Notre Dame bestowed its Laetare Medal in 2016 on then-Vice President Joseph Biden, a longtime advocate for abortion.

Notre Dame needs our prayers. The renewal of Catholic identity at Our Lady’s University would be exciting, promising an enormous impact for a Church that also seeks renewal. The President Obama episode should have served as a wake-up call. Yet things look worse now than they did then.

Meanwhile, Catholics seeking a strong, faithful education have better options, such as those colleges recognised in The Newman Guide – where secular prestige is never more important than students’ formation. A good Catholic education begins with truth, especially as revealed by Christ and taught by His Church. Catholic families should explore colleges that embrace the faith with wonder and gratitude, while guiding students along the narrow path of holiness.

Patrick J Reilly is president of The Cardinal Newman Society