Harpooning the whale

The University of Notre Dame is one of the oldest and most prestigious Catholic universities in the US. Even non-Americans have heard of the Fighting Irish, its legendary football team which inspired a famous film featuring a young Ronald Reagan. The team’s dismal record in 2007 -- the most losses in a single year – sparked anger and anguish amongst the university’s 120,000 alumni. It was arguably the biggest controversy of the university’s existence.

Until now.

The current fracas has placed the university in the bear pit of American culture wars – not exactly the catbird seat for an institution whose undergraduate program is ranked 18th in the US. It began with an invitation to President Barack Obama to speak at commencement day on May 17. He will also be given an honorary doctorate.

On most campuses, in most years, a visit by the President of the United States would be a delightful occasion for an exchange of platitudes and pleasantries. But Notre Dame is a renowned Catholic university and Obama is an unambiguous, outspoken supporter of abortion and embryonic stem cell research. The ensuing furore has launched a debate over the meaning of Catholic education.

The University balanced Obama’s pro-abortion views by announcing that it would bestow its highest honour, the Laetare Medal, upon a person with staunchly anti-abortion views, Professor Mary Ann Glendon, who taught Obama at Harvard Law School. The balancing act was a mistake. Glendon is a gracious and distinguished woman with a steel-trap mind and firm convictions. She represented the Vatican at the Beijing Conference on Women and recently finished a term as American Ambassador to the Vatican.

She spurned Notre Dame’s invitation.

"A commencement," Glendon announced in an open letter, "is supposed to be a joyous day for the graduates and their families. It is not the right place… for engagement with the very serious problems raised by Notre Dame’s decision—in disregard of the settled position of the US bishops—to honor a prominent and uncompromising opponent of the Church’s position on issues involving fundamental principles of justice."

Notre Dame’s press office has found a new candidate, Judge John T. Noonan. Noonan pocketed a Laetare Medal in 1984, so this time he will simply give a speech. He fits well into Notre Dame’s schizophrenic approach to Catholicism. He is publicly pro-life, and, at the same time, a prominent critic of Catholic teaching on contraception.

Why did Notre Dame, which is probably the most prestigious Catholic university in the US, invite Obama? The president of the university, Father John Jenkins, justified his move as an opportunity to engage him in "further dialogue" about abortion. However, the American Catholic bishops set down clear guidelines in 2004 which explicitly prohibit giving honorary degrees to pro-choice politicians. Glendon knew all about this – she helped in drafting them.

The response to the decision from opponents of abortion has ranged from puzzlement to rage.

The bishop of the Indiana diocese in which Notre Dame is located, John D’Arcy, wrote a public letter in which he accused the University of pursuing "prestige over the truth". Nearly 50 other Catholic bishops have supported his criticism. Father Jenkins retorted that he had only extended the invitation after consulting canon lawyers and university presidents. He described the invitation as being within the spirit and the letter of the bishops’ guidelines. D’Arcy responded in a second public letter noting that Jenkins never consulted his own bishop.

Notre Dame expected a few tremors, but the reaction has gone off the Richter scale. By April 28, 340,000 people, no "fringe group," as Jenkins describes it, had signed a letter of protest on one web site alone. An alumni group, rejectjenkins.com, is aiming at the hip-pocket nerve and has convinced donors to withhold millions in donations from the University. The public relations department of the University has hired extra employees to deal with angry alumni.

I teach on the campus and no one can fail to notice the rumbling discontent. An anti-abortion group, the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, is driving "Reproductive Choice Trucks" around campus with large images of aborted fetuses at four, seven, and eleven weeks. As I write this, an airplane is flying overhead trailing an aerial billboard of a fetus. This stunt will continue until commencement day. Protestors are now a daily feature at the University’s main entrance.

Meanwhile, the Faculty Senate and most graduating students support or are simply indifferent to the facts of the case. Most of them voted for Obama in November.

Amidst this controversy, few, if any, have addressed the Catholic identity issue at Notre Dame and other Catholic colleges and universities. This issue can be traced back to 1955, when John Tracey Ellis, a leading Catholic historian, decried the lack of intellectual excellence at Catholic universities. Unless this changed, he argued, institutions like Notre Dame would never be ranked among America’s elite universities. The larger Catholic institutions took the hint. But rather than engaging and purifying American culture, Catholic scholars imitated it. Still worse, they did so at the very moment when American culture was veering away from its Protestant past and towards a more secular and sexualized future.

For instance, by the early 1960s Notre Dame, with the help of the Rockefeller Foundation, was involved in sponsoring birth control conferences at the University. In the 1967 Land O’ Lakes Statement, Notre Dame led other Catholic colleges and universities in declaring their independence from Church authority so that they could tap into money from private foundations and government grants. In 1968, theology departments at Catholic universities led the protest against Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s ban on artificial contraception.

In a letter to Jenkins, Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix has described the invitation as "a public act of disobedience" to US bishops. But this is hardly the first time a Catholic university has defied bishops. Many of them, with Notre Dame often in the lead, have been ignoring them for years. As long ago as 1989, a book, Is Notre Dame Still Catholic? complained that a 1982-83 survey showed that most theology professors denied the divinity of Christ, that a homosexual and lesbian culture existed on campus, and that some faculty and staff actively supported abortion. A second edition -- now in press -- updates the scorecard with incidents like a campus screening of The Last Temptation of Christ, repeated efforts to host a gay film festival and the Vagina Monologues, and so on.

I’m a fan of Moby Dick, the great novel by Herman Melville. The monomaniacal, peg-legged Captain Ahab pursues a gigantic white sperm whale across the globe. When he finally harpoons it, Moby Dick stoves the ship and takes Ahab and the crew down to Davey Jones. Only the narrator , Ishmael, is left to tell the tale, with a coffin keeping him afloat until he is rescued.

Is there a lesson in this for Notre Dame? I think so. For nearly half a century, the university has pursued monomaniacally its gigantic obsession with prestige amongst its secular colleagues. No doubt these have applauded its growing independence from traditional values and from the intellectual discipline of Catholic teaching. Obama’s visit is a triumphant symbol of the fact that it is drearily like every other secular university in America. It has harpooned its whale.

But what comes next? Will Notre Dame sink in the seas of relativism? As I write, rumors abound that Father Jenkins will be removed or step down, although it is unlikely that his successor will steer a different course. Financially, these are tough times for universities, as for everyone else. Will deep-pocketed but disenchanted alumni close their wallets? Will bright students go elsewhere for a Catholic education? I don’t know, but I’m stocking up my coffin with extra rations.

Omar O'Shaughnessey is the pen name of a junior academic at Notre Dame.


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