National Review Online: Notre Dame Says 'Yes We Can' There was no dialogue, or persuasion, at the commencement at Notre Dame's commencement. There was the president of Our Lady's University treating the key human-rights issue of our day as one issue among many, granting the president of the United States a red carpet to make the case for agreeing to disagree.
NPR logo National Review Online: Notre Dame Says 'Yes We Can'

National Review Online: Notre Dame Says 'Yes We Can'

Rev. John I. Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame laughs with President Barack Obama after introducing him at commencement ceremonies in South Bend, Ind. Charles Rex Arbogast/AP hide caption

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Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

At Saint Patrick's Cathedral Sunday night in New York City, the celebrant of the 5:30 Mass pointed out that "love" was mentioned 17 times in 13 verses between the second reading and the Gospel for the day.

Presumably, more than a few of those who attended the University of Notre Dame's commencement on the same day heard those two Biblical selections. Some of them had to be among those applauding and "whooping and hollering," as one anchor on CNN described their reaction to President Barack Obama's presence at Notre Dame, where he was receiving an honorary degree.

It's understandable that some (and even many) who graduated or otherwise attended the N.D. commencement might interpret love as embracing the "Yes we can" message of Barack Obama (whatever that message means) when the most immediate and vocal alternative at the time seemed to be screaming "stop killing babies" and "abortion is murder" during the commencement exercises. Or getting arrested. Or well-intentioned ranting on talk radio.

Of course, that was not the necessary alternative to embracing the feel-goodness inside the Joyce Center in South Bend. Fr. Wilson Miscamble, a Holy Cross priest and a professor of history at Notre Dame, offered some instruction as to how Notre Dame can restore its identity in the face of this Sunday's honoring of Obama.

Fr. Miscamble cautioned against "rhetoric [that] seems to ring rather hollow." He said: "The words have not been matched by deeds. Instead of fostering the moral development of its students Notre Dame's leaders have planted the damaging seeds of moral confusion." Though speaking before the commencement speakers, he captured the rhetoric perfectly.

Notre Dame president Fr. John Jenkins did exactly what Fr. Miscamble worried he would: He led a hollow and confusing event. Fr. Jenkins said: "More than any problem in the arts or sciences, engineering or medicine, easing the hateful divisions between human beings is the supreme challenge of this age. . . . If we can solve this problem, we have a chance to come together and solve all the others."

One might try to defend Fr. Jenkins, saying he was just trying to apply the Gospel of the day to the graduation ceremony, as the country was watching. But instead, while speaking vaguely about the need for both faith and reason, he preached a nebulous, vacuous gospel. He said: "Difference must be acknowledged, and in some cases even cherished. . . . We can persuade believers by appeal to both faith and reason. As we serve our country, we will be motivated by faith, but we cannot appeal only to faith. We must also engage in a dialogue that appeals to reason that all can accept."

But there was no dialogue, or persuasion, at the commencement on Sunday. There was the president of Our Lady's University treating the key human-rights issue of our day as one issue among many, granting the president of the United States a red carpet to make the case for agreeing to disagree.

Fr. Jenkins quoted Pope John Paul II and the Second Vatican Council in defending the Obama honorary degree. But he didn't quote from the current pope and his address to Fr. Jenkins and all Catholic university presidents last year while visiting the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Benedict began his speech by saying that "first and foremost every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth." He continued: "Teachers and administrators . . . have the duty and privilege to ensure that students receive instruction in Catholic doctrine and practice. This requires that public witness to the way of Christ, as found in the Gospel and upheld by the Church's Magisterium, shapes all aspects of an institution's life, both inside and outside the classroom. Divergence from this vision weakens Catholic identity and, far from advancing freedom, inevitably leads to confusion, whether moral, intellectual, or spiritual."

The valedictory address on Sunday made reference to being different: Notice your bus driver. Recycle, even if your coworkers think you're weird walking around with an empty can. The Gospel, of course, calls for a far deeper difference than this. It's not clear that the university that presented The Vagina Monologues on campus under the Jenkins administration makes this exceedingly clear.

Contrary to headlines over the weekend, the Vatican has not been silent on this Notre Dame award to Obama. A little over a week before the Notre Dame commencement, Archbishop Raymond Burke, formerly archbishop of St. Louis, traveled to our nation's capital from Rome to provide the leadership Notre Dame didn't this May. Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura at the Vatican, Burke had something to say about Notre Dame (the Obama commencement is "rightly the source of the greatest scandal"), about Catholics and public life, about patriotism and faith, and about how one lives a life of faithfulness.

Archbishop Burke opened with the following explanation:

Before the fundamental and great challenges which we as a nation are facing, how better to express our patriotism than by celebrating the teachings of our Catholic faith. The most treasured gift which we as citizens of the United States of America can offer to our country is a faithful Catholic life. It is the gift which, even though it has often been misunderstood, has brought great strength to our nation, from the time of its founding. Today more than ever, our nation is in need of Catholics who know their faith deeply and express their faith, with integrity, by their daily living.

Somehow he was able to do that without hollow rhetoric and without being partisan. But he also did not provide cover to anyone. "Over the past several months, our nation has chosen a path which more completely denies any legal guarantee of the most fundamental human right, the right to life, to the innocent and defenseless unborn," Archbishop Burke said.

He also said: "Those in power now determine who will or will not be accorded the legal protection of the most fundamental right to life. First the legal protection of the right to life is denied to the unborn and, then, to those whose lives have become burdened by advanced years, special needs, or serious illness, or whose lives are somehow judged to be unprofitable or unworthy." And Archbishop Burke warned: "Our laws may soon force those who have dedicated themselves to the care of the sick and the promotion of good health to give up their noble life work, in order to be true to the most sacred dictate of their consciences. What is more, if our nation continues down the path it has taken, health-care institutions operating in accord with the natural moral law, which teaches us that innocent human life is to be protected and fostered at all times and that it is always and everywhere evil to destroy an innocent human life, will be forced to close their doors."

Archbishop Burke talked, too, about marriage and the "confusion and error about marriage" that is rooted in "the contraceptive mentality," which, he said, "would have us believe that the inherently procreative nature of the conjugal union can, in practice, be mechanically or chemically eliminated, while the marital act remains unitive. It cannot be so. With unparalleled arrogance, our nation is choosing to renounce its foundation upon the faithful, indissoluble, and inherently procreative love of a man and a woman in marriage, and, in violation of what nature itself teaches us, to replace it with a so-called marital relationship, according to the definition of those who exercise the greatest power in our society."

You get the idea. It was very different from what we heard at Notre Dame on Sunday.

Was the president of the University of Notre Dame supposed to say all of this in front of the president of the United States? Well, he shouldn't have been lending the president the school's credibility in the first place. And once he did — once invited, the president could not have been uninvited — he didn't help foster a culture of life by demonizing those who thought his decision to honor Barack Obama was an outrage. "Outrage" didn't come just from Alan Keyes, Obama's former Senate opponent; it came, in a much more civil and instructive style, from a Vatican official who provided leadership in a time of confusion on the campus of Notre Dame and in the watching nation.

This incident in the life of the University of Notre Dame, the Catholic Church, and the United States will not end with the passage of the weekend, or even when the talking heads stop chattering about it. In an interview with National Review Online last week, Archbishop Burke urged those who are concerned about what has happened at Notre Dame to let their views be known. (Some did just this on campus, with varying degrees of effectiveness and prudence.) Write Fr. Jenkins. Write Bishop D'Arcy, who did not attend the commencement exercises but did attend an on-campus protest. Write the Vatican.

I might add: If you have occasion to, encourage the schools that are doing the right things. Encourage those who do not sow and water yet more moral confusion.(And thank former Vatican ambassador Mary Ann Glendon for providing real leadership for refusing to be used at the commencment.)

"Dialogue" has been the apparent cardinal virtue during this Notre Dame affair, as so often is the case when higher education and religion get controversial. True dialogue can be fruitful (Pope Benedict said just this on the South Lawn of the White House, as Fr. Jenkins reminded us Sunday). But it wasn't there on Sunday at the commencement exercises, and to pretend that it was is a continued outrage.

In that address to Catholic educators last year, Pope Benedict had something to say about "academic freedom":

I wish to reaffirm the great value of academic freedom. In virtue of this freedom you are called to search for the truth wherever careful analysis of evidence leads you. Yet it is also the case that any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the Church would obstruct or even betray the university's identity and mission; a mission at the heart of the Church's munus docendi [duty to teach] and not somehow autonomous or independent of it.

Teachers and administrators, whether in universities or schools, have the duty and privilege to ensure that students receive instruction in Catholic doctrine and practice. This requires that public witness to the way of Christ, as found in the Gospel and upheld by the Church's Magisterium, shapes all aspects of an institution's life, both inside and outside the classroom. Divergence from this vision weakens Catholic identity and, far from advancing freedom, inevitably leads to confusion, whether moral, intellectual, or spiritual.

The University of Notre Dame used appeals to academic freedom and dialogue to justify a weakening of the school and thereby the Church's public identity. Fr. Jenkins presided over a muddle on Sunday. But there's hope for both Notre Dame and the Catholic Church.

President Obama plugged his book The Audacity of Hope during his commencement address. Let me plug Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict's encyclical on Christian hope. He wrote that "the one who has hope lives differently" — and pointed toward Mary, Mother of God, for whom the University of Notre Dame is named, in a way that could have fit into commencement remarks this weekend:

Human life is a journey. Towards what destination? How do we find the way? Life is like a voyage on the sea of history, often dark and stormy, a voyage in which we watch for the stars that indicate the route. The true stars of our life are the people who have lived good lives. They are lights of hope. Certainly, Jesus Christ is the true light, the sun that has risen above all the shadows of history. But to reach him we also need lights close by — people who shine with his light and so guide us along our way. Who more than Mary could be a star of hope for us? With her "yes" she opened the door of our world to God himself; she became the living Ark of the Covenant, in whom God took flesh, became one of us, and pitched his tent among us (cf. Jn 1:14).

On the campus of the University of Notre Dame, there are such lights. There is the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture and the Notre Dame Fund to Protect Human Life. There are more examples here. If you are a Notre Dame alum or other former donor, you might consider supporting some of those lights of hope. A Catholic university that can touch as many souls as Notre Dame — in the classroom, on the football field, in months of headlines over a commencement speaker — is not one to surrender without a fight.