Notre Dame Fumbles Its Obama Offensive

Deal W. Hudson
May 5, 2009

Bishop Thomas Wenski celebrated a Mass of Reparation this past Sunday in Orlando at the Cathedral of St. James. Although the Mass was offered in reparation for transgressions “against the dignity and sacredness of human life,” the one specific transgression prompting the liturgy was the decision by the University of Notre Dame to invite President Barack Obama to be its commencement speaker and receive an honorary degree.

As Bishop Wenski explained, “That Notre-Dame would invite him and would grant him, at the same time, an honorary degree… reveals that Notre-Dame (at least in its Administration and Board) has forgotten what it means to be Catholic” (emphasis added).

Who would have imagined it? A special liturgy of atonement occasioned by the nation’s premier and most-beloved Catholic institution, the University of Notre Dame. Who would have predicted that Notre Dame would ever be publicly accused of forgetting “what it means to be Catholic”?

Of course, Bishop Wenski is not alone in his opinion: He joins 61 bishops who have publicly taken issue with Notre Dame on their decision.

When I asked the bishop how his Mass was received, especially by those associated with Notre Dame, he responded:

“Actually, Notre-Dame alumni approached me to express their upset at the honorary degree and asked what they should do. I suggested that we pray, and the idea of the Mass of Reparation was born. The Church was full, with many alumni and parents of alumni in attendance. I even got calls from alumni who were out of town but called to tell me that they would have been there otherwise.”

Not everyone thinks Notre Dame has transgressed here, however. David Gibson, at the dotCommonweal blog, writes that the Mass of Reparation indicates that “this whole thing has truly gone into an alternate universe.” He adds that such a Mass was not advisable, “as it feeds divisions when there is no clear judgment that Notre Dame has committed such serious sin.”

Gibson got closer to the truth with his first comment about there being an “alternate universe” in the Catholic Church, which I take as a dramatic way of saying that there is a deep division among Catholics, and the Notre Dame incident has revealed it more clearly, perhaps, than any event in recent memory.

The administration at Notre Dame thought their institution was bigger, and packed more clout, than any group of angry laymen and “ultra-conservative” bishops that might protest honoring the most pro-abortion president in our nation’s history. Just to make sure, they held back the announcement that former Vatican ambassador and Harvard Law Professor Mary Ann Glendon would be receiving the Laetare Medal at the same commencement. On the Monday following the Friday afternoon announcement that Obama would speak at its commencement, Notre Dame issued a press release about Glendon, and a flurry of e-mails went out to Notre Dame alums assuring them that the well-known pro-life jurist would provide the Catholic counterpoint to Obama.

The strategy worked for a few days… and then the public-relations dam started to break. First, the local ordinary, Bishop John D’Arcy, announced on March 27 that he would not attend the commencement ceremony for the first time since 1985. The other bishops began to voice support for their brother bishop; this included the president of the USCCB, Chicago’s Cardinal George, a man deeply respected across the spectrum of the Church, who said on April 1 that Notre Dame had “brought extreme embarrassment” to Catholics.

But Rev. John Jenkins, the president of Notre Dame, arguing that Glendon’s presence on the program supplied “balance,” held on, even in the face of criticism from the head of his own Holy Cross order.

The number of bishops gradually rose from 10 to 20, then 40 to 50. Archbishop Timothy Dolan, newly installed ordinary in New York, joined the chorus of criticism on April 15. Suddenly, Notre Dame found itself losing the public-relations battle. But then, almost two weeks later, the bottom dropped out – Glendon herself, without any warning to the university, pulled out of the ceremony and posted an unusually stern letter for the diplomatic, and always affable law professor.

Glendon wrote that she was “particularly offended by the ‘talking points’ issued by Notre Dame in response to widespread criticism of its decision, including two statements implying that my acceptance speech would somehow balance the event.” In hindsight, this was Notre Dame’s biggest blunder, next to the Obama invitation itself. Whoever thought an e-mail touting Glendon as the pro-life balance to the pro-abort Obama could be spread virally through the Catholic community without it finding its way to Glendon was stunningly naive.

The tactic underscores Notre Dame’s self-image of standing astride the Catholic Church, rather than kneeling beneath it.

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