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We all knew this fight was coming. The Catholic Church and the Catholic colleges have been heading toward a crash since at least 1990, when John Paul II issued Ex Corde Ecclesiae, his apostolic constitution for Catholic institutions of higher education. And now, at last, the battle is public—brought to fever pitch by Notre Dame’s bestowing of an honorary law degree on a prominent supporter of legalized abortion.

As it happens, that supporter of abortion is also the president of the United States, which is unfortunate in a number of ways—beginning with the fact that the office of the president, regardless of who holds it, deserves respect and honor from American citizens of every political persuasion. For that matter, a majority of at least self-described Catholics (54 percent, according to widely reported exit polls) voted for Barack Obama in November, and, as our first black president, he serves a symbolic function in American political life that Catholics should applaud.

But even when we know a fight is coming, we don’t always get to choose the field on which it will be fought. A better place to make all this public might have been the Sacred Heart University dinner at the end of April, which the bishop of Bridgeport, William Lori, refused to attend because it was in honor of the pro-abortion Kerry Kennedy. Or the Xavier University commencement at the beginning of May, which the archbishop of New Orleans, Alfred Hughes, refused to attend because it was in honor of the pro-abortion political strategist Donna Brazile.

Of course, neither Kerry Kennedy nor Donna Brazile are as prominent as Barack Obama, and, in truth, neither Sacred Heart nor Xavier are as firmly identified with Catholicism in the American mind as the University of Notre Dame. And so this is where the long-expected fight at last broke out: in a public controversy over the honoring of the president of the United States with a Catholic law degree.

The story began in December, when the president of Notre Dame, Fr. John I. Jenkins, asked Mary Ann Glendon, the Harvard law professor and former ambassador to the Vatican, to accept this year’s Laetare Medal—the university’s annual honor for service to the Church and society. Then, on March 20, the White House announced that President Obama would be the commencement speaker this spring at Arizona State University, the University of Notre Dame, and the United States Naval Academy: the usual presidential grouping of a state university, an independent college, and a military academy. That same day, however, Notre Dame announced that it would also be honoring the president with a law degree: the only one of three schools to add an honorary doctorate to the commencement ceremonies.

The university’s spokesman Dennis Brown said Notre Dame was “not surprised” by objections to the honoring of Obama. By itself, that fact contradicts the school’s later claim that no one at Notre Dame had realized the faithful would be scandalized by the choice of commencement speaker. But it is surely correct to say that the school did not expect the volume of objection and the speed with which it built. By the end of April, an online petition had reached 350,000 signatures, and another online group announced that in a single week it had received pledges to withhold from Notre Dame $8.2 million in planned donations. News reports say the students on campus strongly support the school’s administration, but the alumni are less happy, and the pro-life community is outraged—which led the wild-eyed, self-promoting activist Randall Terry to arrive in South Bend and announce, “We will make this a circus.” (He started his own website, as well; named “Stop Obama Notre Dame,” it offers, for the faithful, what it calls “Marching Orders from Randall Terry.”)

Meanwhile, bishops from over fifty of the 195 American dioceses have publicly declared their discontent with Notre Dame—and, interestingly, other bishops, the ones who might have supported the school, have faded quietly from the scene. By the beginning of May, not a single bishop was in open dissent from what had clearly become the consensus of the American episcopate.

In part, that is because even the most politically liberal bishops want to salvage the work they put into “Catholics in Political Life,” the carefully worded 2004 document from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, released after years of deliberation and compromise. “Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles,” the bishops had agreed. “They should not be given awards, honors, or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.” And what was the point of all that careful work from the bishops, if Catholic institutions are now simply going to ignore it?

Fr. Jenkins’ Escalations

Throughout it all, the behavior of Notre Dame’s president, Fr. Jenkins, has been execrable. The word is not too strong: If the man manages somehow to keep his job, it won’t be through lack of trying to lose it.

Jenkins’ appointment as president in 2005 was greeted with some celebration by Catholics, who believed he would give more serious and direct attention to Notre Dame’s Catholic character than had the two previous presidents, Fr. Edward Malloy and Fr. Theodore Hesburgh. For that matter, many who know him personally speak of his sincere faith and his good intentions. But when the protests over Obama’s honorary degree began, he decided to raise the stakes—doubling down, as the blackjack metaphor has it—and as a result, he turned an unhappy situation into a disastrous one.

One good measure of just how badly he has failed may be the fact that he succeeded in driving off Mary Ann Glendon, who—in an open letter first published on the First Things website—announced on April 27 that she was withdrawing her acceptance of this year’s Laetare Medal. A woman celebrated for her good manners and goodwill, Ambassador Glendon hardly wanted to do this, even after the March announcement of Obama’s honorary degree; indeed, some of the Catholics who were organizing protests at Notre Dame criticized her for delaying her refusal of the medal. But, Glendon wrote, the school’s own later actions compelled her to withdraw. By ratcheting up the confrontation with the bishops—threatening a “ripple effect” that could lead “other Catholic schools . . . to disregard the bishops’ guidelines”—Fr. Jenkins had forced her to choose between the bishops and Notre Dame.

She sided with the bishops, of course; given the stark alternatives, she could hardly do otherwise. But her decision was made easier by Notre Dame’s attempts to use her to defuse criticism. One of the school’s official “talking points” instructed its spokesmen to reply to queries: “President Obama won’t be doing all the talking. Mary Ann Glendon, the former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, will be speaking as the recipient of the Laetare Medal.” Indeed, if they were pushed on the question, officials at the university were told to answer: “We think having the president come to Notre Dame, see our graduates, meet our leaders, and hear a talk from Mary Ann Glendon is a good thing for the president and for the causes we care about.” This was a game in which she didn’t choose to be a pawn.

An even better gauge of Jenkins’ failure is his alienation of John D’Arcy, the local bishop. For those who measure their bishops by their ecclesial politics, D’Arcy hardly ranks as a raging conservative. While an auxiliary bishop of Boston in the early 1980s, he reported to Cardinal Law about priests accused of abusing minors—for which he was apparently rewarded by being shipped out of Boston to the minor diocese of Fort Wayne—South Bend in 1985. During the 1990s, while the American bishops were engaged in the seemingly endless discussion of how to implement Ex Corde Ecclesiae, it was D’Arcy who urged the bishops to delay even longer before imposing the requirement that Catholic theologians at Catholic colleges obtain a mandatum from the local bishop.

To force this patient man away, Fr. Jenkins had to begin by failing to give him even a courtesy call while Obama’s honorary degree was being planned. On March 24, Bishop D’Arcy released a rather quiet but firm letter in which he said he would not attend the graduation ceremonies, since Notre Dame had violated the 2004 bishops’ statement, “Catholics in Political Life.” “President Obama has recently reaffirmed, and has now placed in public policy, his long-stated unwillingness to hold human life as sacred,” D’Arcy wrote. “I wish no disrespect to our president, I pray for him and wish him well. I have always revered the office of the presidency. But a bishop must teach the Catholic faith ‘in season and out of season,’ and he teaches not only by his words but by his actions. My decision is not an attack on anyone, but is in defense of the truth about human life.”

In reply, Jenkins offered a piece of sophistry so tawdry it embarrassed even his strongest supporters. He began by quoting the 2004 bishops’ statement: “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.” But, he explained, “Because the title of the document is ‘Catholics in Political Life,’ we understood this to refer to honoring Catholics whose actions are not in accord with our moral principles.” And since President Obama isn’t Catholic, Notre Dame’s bestowal of a law degree does not honor “those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles.”

On April 21, Bishop D’Arcy replied with a second public letter. “It would be one thing to bring the president here for a discussion on healthcare or immigration, and no person of goodwill could rightly oppose this,” he wrote.

We have here, however, the granting of an honorary degree of law to someone whose activities, both as president and previously, have been altogether supportive of laws against the dignity of the human person yet to be born. . . .

I consider it now settled that the USCCB document, “Catholics in Public Life,” does indeed apply in this matter. The failure to consult the local bishop who, whatever his unworthiness, is the teacher and lawgiver in the diocese, is a serious mistake. Proper consultation could have prevented an action which has caused such painful division between Notre Dame and many bishops”and a large number of the faithful.

That division must be addressed through prayer and action, and I pledge to work with Fr. Jenkins and all at Notre Dame to heal the terrible breach, which has taken place between Notre Dame and the Church. It cannot be allowed to continue. I ask all to pray that this healing will take place in a way that is substantial and true and not illusory. Notre Dame and Fr. Jenkins must do their part if this healing is to take place. I will do my part.

Fr. Jenkins’ only public response to this invitation to work with Bishop D’Arcy was, reportedly, a snide remark to a Notre Dame audience that he didn’t consult the bishop about inviting Obama, but then again he doesn’t consult the bishop on most decisions regarding the university.

That may be the problem: He doesn’t appear to be asking anyone for advice—at least, not anyone sensible. While Fr. Jenkins was in Washington in April, a former student (known to friends of First Things) emailed: “On my walk home from work I pass the White House. As I was walking by just now I ran into Fr. Jenkins from Notre Dame, on his way into the White House and had a quick moment to speak with him! This could be very hopeful! Please stop and pray right now that Fr. Jenkins finds the courage to do the right thing while he meets with President Obama, and for the president himself that his heart may be converted!” A recipient of the email (a professor at Notre Dame, also known to friends of First Things) asked about the incident, and he reports that Jenkins snapped in reply, “Whoever said I was even near the White House is either mistaken or lying.”

Regardless of the truth of the matter, the tone of that reply is revealing. From the initial decision to grant Obama an unnecessary degree, to the tone-deaf announcement that he would simply replace Mary Ann Glendon as the Laetare medalist, to the trotting out of the former-medalist Judge Noonan to lull the crowd at commencement, Fr. Jenkins has chosen at each step of the process to force discontent into anger, anger into action, and action into war.

The Political View

Of course, the unhappy president of Notre Dame may well believe he is doing simply what Catholic university presidents do these days. His incompetence, however, helps make clear what a more skillful administrator might have obscured: the great divergence, in outlook and purpose, between Catholic universities and the Catholic culture of America.

A straightforward (if somewhat cynical) political analysis grants some insight into the confrontation between the colleges and the Church”the confrontation of which Notre Dame’s honoring of President Obama has grown to become the central symbol. University communities tend to be more liberal”certainly more in tune with the Democratic party”than other locales. The Catholic Notre Dame is more conservative than, say, the secular University of California at Berkeley, but Notre Dame is still a university, and its faculty and administrators voted for Obama in percentages beyond the rest of Catholic America. From their point of view, the arrival on campus of the president is a mark of victory in the political arena. Why should they surrender the distinction merely because conservative agitators lost the last presidential election and want Notre Dame to suffer for it?

Of course, from the White House, the situation looks different. John Kerry managed only 47 percent of the Catholic vote in 2004. Barack Obama brought home much more in 2008, and the Democratic party wants to keep those hard-gained votes. The bad economy may have turned some Catholics against the Republicans, but it hasn’t necessarily bound Catholics back to the Democrats. The sticking point remains abortion: Catholics are against it, Democrats are for it, and nothing on either side looks likely to budge. Enter the Catholic universities and colleges. In recent years, the bishops have proved generally unwilling to downplay the life issues, and, as a result, they have been systematically shut out by the Obama administration and the new Congress. No one in power in Washington feels the need to give in to the bishops about anything—or to compromise with the bishops, or even to consult the bishops. Much as Republicans over the past eight years never bothered with the National Organization for Women, considering it a wholly owned subsidiary of the Democratic party, so the Democrats now do not bother much with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which they imagine mostly as a partisan opponent on the life issues and a sideshow on everything else.

Still, the Democrats need to keep their Catholic voters. They need Catholic cover—and they are seeking it among the Catholic schools: Georgetown and Xavier and Sacred Heart and, yes, Notre Dame. The people at these institutions do not all approve of legalized abortion; some do, some don’t, and the percentages vary, with Georgetown probably high toward approval and Notre Dame certainly high toward disapproval. But, in general, the Catholic colleges have proved themselves willing to set aside the question of abortion when giving honors to politicians they otherwise support, while the bishops have gradually settled on refusing to grant those honors.

As the Democrats try what all political parties try—to turn a single electoral victory into a long-lasting majority—the lures they offer the Catholic colleges will grow larger and larger. Politics, taken all by itself, offers some explanation for how President Obama’s honorary law degree from Notre Dame grew to become the central scene of a power struggle between the bishops and the Catholic colleges.

The Pro-Life Center of Catholic Culture

We should never take politics all by itself, however, just as we should never interpret human interaction solely in terms of power. Politics is a power-inflected function of culture, and at the root of culture lie the deepest commitments to what people hold to be true. The role of culture—American Catholic culture, in particular—is what Fr. Jenkins at Notre Dame, and John DeGioia at Georgetown, and many other presidents of Catholic colleges seem not to understand. Indeed, their lack of Catholic culture is what makes them appear so un-Catholic to the people they antagonize, and it is what so befuddles these college presidents when the charge is made. They know they are Catholics: They go to Mass, and they pray, and their faith is real, and their theology is sophisticated, and what right has a bunch of other Catholics to run around accusing them of failing to be Catholic?

But, in fact, they live in a distant world, attenuated and alone. Opposition to abortion doesn’t belong at the absolute center of Catholic theology. It doesn’t belong at the perfect center of Catholic faith. It exists, however, at the center of Catholic culture in this country. Yes, that culture is thinner than many that Catholics have known before, and yes, it seems in some ways an unpromising foundation for establishing a broad Catholic identity. For that matter, the pro-life core has only in the past twenty years begun to spread to the more distant reaches of the Church in America.

Still, opposition to abortion is hard and real, the signpost at the intersection of Catholicism and American public life. And those who—by inclination, or politics, or class distinction—fail to grasp this fact will all eventually find themselves in the situation that Fr. Jenkins has now created for himself. Culturally out of touch, they rail that antagonism must derive from politics or the class envy of their lesser-educated social inferiors. But it doesn’t. It derives from the sense of the faithful that abortion is important. It derives from the feeling of Catholics that, however far they themselves may have wandered, the Church ought to stand for something in public life—and that something is opposition to abortion.

“There is a political game going on here, and part of that is that you demonize the people who disagree with you, you question their integrity, you challenge their character, and you brand these people as moral poison,” Fr. Kenneth Himes, chairman of the theology department at Boston College, told the Boston Globe about the controversy at Notre Dame. As James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal noted, this was the same Fr. Himes who in 2006 wrote the faculty letter objecting to an honorary degree for Condoleezza Rice—a letter that read, “On the levels of both moral principle and practical moral judgment, Secretary Rice’s approach to international affairs is in fundamental conflict with Boston College’s commitment to the values of the Catholic and Jesuit traditions and is inconsistent with the humanistic values that inspire the university’s work.”

The irony is palpable—it’s only demonizing when other people do it—but Himes went on to tell the Globe, “Some people have simply reduced Catholicism to the abortion issue, and, consequently, they have simply launched a crusade to bar anything from Catholic institutions that smacks of any sort of open conversation.” And in his odd way, he’s right. The aspiring professionals who attend and staff elite Catholic universities tend to identify with other upwardly mobile young people, focused on career and lifestyle choices. But the vast majority of Catholics, to whom Catholic universities ultimately must answer, seek in Catholic culture the strength with which to confront the urgent concerns of ordinary life.

One could offer here a number of analogies, of varying accuracy. Take divorce in detective stories, for example. In mystery novel after mystery novel through the 1950s, there existed an accepted trope that a reasonable motive for the murder of, say, a wife was that she was a Catholic and so would never give her philandering husband the divorce he wanted. It didn’t matter that Catholics were, in fact, divorcing at nearly the same rate as everyone else in those years; what mattered was the trope: the cultural identity of Catholics as people who do not divorce.

Friday abstinence might be another analogy: the cultural identification of Catholics with their fish eating. This was a universally recognized marker, a sign of Catholic culture to Catholic and non-Catholic alike. Regardless of how much theology and liturgy were reformed by Vatican II, the loss of Friday abstinence may have caused more changes in Catholic culture than anything else attempted in the aftermath of the council.

Of course, Friday fish eating was never as central to Catholic thought as opposition to abortion is now. Even rejection of divorce was not as central, though it, too, involved defense of the family. A better analogy might be the role that veneration of the Blessed Virgin played in Catholic culture through the 1950s. Protestants always felt there was something deeply wrong with Catholicism’s treatment of Mary, but—as many Catholic theologians pointed out—the Protestant complaint never precisely fit official Catholic theology on the point. That doesn’t mean, however, that the Protestants were wrong. They understood, in fact, that the Blessed Virgin occupied a cultural place for Catholics that official Catholic theology did not fully express.

Indeed, the analogy with the cultural role of abortion gains strength when we remember that the Marian doctrines were not forced down on the Church by intellectuals or the hierarchy. Well into the nineteenth century, Catholic theologians and the Vatican generally resisted the movement. The importance of Mary—her symbols and the strong definition of the Marian doctrines—was pushed from below: given to the hierarchy by the sense of the faithful.

That much is true of opposition to abortion. In an important essay in the Fall 2005 issue of Human Life Review, the historian George McKenna demonstrated the surprising withdrawal of the bishops from the political fight over abortion in the crucial years from 1979 to 1983—and maybe all the way to 1998, when the American bishops finally issued a pastoral letter that sharply separated the life issues from other concerns. The cultural centrality of opposition to abortion in America was not pushed down from above; it was forced on the reluctant bishops by the sense of the faithful, and that forcing took almost twenty years to accomplish.

The End Game

It is a horrifying fact, in many ways, that Roe v. Wade has done more to provide Catholic identity than any other event of the last fifty years. Still, for American Catholics, the Church is a refuge and bulwark against an ambient culture that erodes morality and undermines families. Catholic culture is their counterculture, their means of upholding the dignity of the human person and the integrity of family—and, in that context, the centrality of abortion for American Catholic culture seems much less arbitrary than it first appeared.

This is what the leaders of Notre Dame need to grasp, along with those at Georgetown, Xavier, Sacred Heart, and all the rest. They do not necessarily have bad theology—although the bishops have argued that they do—when they equate the life issues with other concerns. They do not have bad faith just because they see the war and capital punishment as matters of equal weight with the million babies killed every year in this country by abortion. But they lack the cultural marker that would make them distinctively Catholic in the minds of other Catholics. Abortion is not the only life issue, but it is the one that bears most directly on the lives of ordinary Catholics as they fight against the current to preserve family life. And until Catholic universities get this, they will not be Catholic—in a very real, existentially important sense.

What’s more, they will not be politically effective. Notre Dame and President Obama created the present situation by attempting to use each other in the normal political way, but Notre Dame has gained nothing from the exercise. If anything, Notre Dame has lost ground. What political capital has it earned with the White House from the embarrassment of Mary Ann Glendon’s withdrawal and the open sniping of the bishops and the protesters camped outside the college gates? Nothing that will do the school any good.

What the bishops should do now is not clear. They lack much of a weapon beyond the pinprick of a sharp letter and the atomic explosions of declaring that an institution is no longer Catholic and, I suppose, issuing an interdict that bans the sacraments on campus. The likelihood of interdiction at Notre Dame this spring is vanishingly small”but the bishops might remember that weapons remain valuable only if they get brandished every once in a while.

They might remember, as well, that the day is coming when they will have to take on a major Catholic university, and it won’t be because they much want to. It will be because the ordinary sense of ordinary Catholics compels them to it. Wouldn’t it be more politically effective if Catholic schools withheld their honors to try to force the politicians they admire to oppose abortion? Wouldn’t it be more culturally powerful if Catholic schools were Catholic in a way that Catholics understand?

Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things.