Notre Dame’s President at a Crossroads

Deal W. Hudson
March 23, 2009

For the past few years, the buzz about Rev. John I. Jenkins, the president of Notre Dame since 2005, has been very positive. In spite of his refusal to ban The Vagina Monologues from the campus, Father Jenkins was viewed as strengthening the Catholic identity of the nation’s most beloved Catholic institution.

But with one bold stroke, Father Jenkins has radically altered the perception of his leadership. His decision to honor President Barack Obama at Notre Dame’s commencement this year has been met with stunned disbelief among Catholics across the nation. The Cardinal Newman Society immediately launched a petition drive, NotreDameScandal.com, and within 48 hours it collected over 10,000 signatures.

In 2006, Father Jenkins defused the uproar over The Vagina Monologues with a statement on “Academic Freedom and Catholic Character,” which argued that “a Catholic university is where the Church does its thinking, and that thinking, to be beneficial, must come from an intellectually rigorous engagement with the world.”

Will Father Jenkins use the same argument to defend his invitation to Obama? Perhaps. Obama’s pro-abortion views are, no doubt, part of “the world” that, in Father Jenkin’s view, his university must engage. Now that the president has accepted the invitation, Father Jenkins could refuse to disinvite him on the grounds it would “suppress speech,” as he argued in permitting The Vagina Monologues to be performed on campus.

More likely, Father Jenkins will simply say that Obama is the president of the United States and, as such, should be welcomed on campus as a political leader who is making history with every speech and appearance. Why shouldn’t the community of Notre Dame become part of that history? Such an encounter, Father Jenkins could say, has unmistakable educational value.

This argument would be convincing – if Notre Dame were not a Catholic university honoring a political leader committed to removing all restrictions on abortion-on-demand in the United States. Whatever educational value there is in the visit of a U.S. president to the campus is trumped by the spectacle of moral support being offered by Notre Dame to Obama’s position on abortion.

The U.S. Catholic bishops have been clear on this point. In their 2004 document“Catholics in Political Life,” the bishops wrote, “The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors, or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.”

In short, the moment Father Jenkins places the honorary doctorate into the hands of Barack Obama, the university will be viewed as either supporting his pro-abortion views or turning a blind eye to them.

Father Jenkins also has the option of making what could be called the “Faithful Citizenship” dodge. He could say that the university gave Obama this honor without intending to honor his pro-abortion views. Readers may recall that the bishops’ 2008 document, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” left the same opening to allow Catholics to vote for pro-abortion candidates like Obama and his Catholic running mate, Joseph Biden.

Since the Friday afternoon announcement of the honor being conferred by Notre Dame on President Obama, there have been no statements from any of the bishops, including the ordinary of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Bishop John M. D’Arcy. A few days ago, Bishop D’Arcy issued a strongly worded statement on Obama’s decision to allow federal funding for the destruction of embryos for their stem cells. He wrote,

This decision by the president is an imposition of a utilitarian ideology, which allows a group of human beings that some believe do not share human dignity, to be used and exploited. Human history, of course, is rife with examples of the strong dominating the weak and defenseless. Doesn’t the promise of a democratic America – of respect for the dignity of all – hold us to a higher standard?

A bishop who is capable of such eloquent conviction will surely publicly express his disappointment in the leadership of Father Jenkins. Bishop D’Arcy, who has challenged Notre Dame before, must invoke the guidelines of “Catholics in Political Life” or risk some of the other bishops doing it for him. (The University of Notre Dame may lie within Bishop D’Arcy’s diocese, but Catholics across the country feel ownership, regarding it as a national, rather than regional, institution.)

Barring some miracle of divine intervention, the world will soon watch as the preeminent Catholic university in the country lauds the world’s leading advocate for killing children in the womb. Under Father Jenkins’s leadership, Notre Dame has had an “intellectually rigorous engagement with the world,” and the world has won.

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