My friend Mr. John L. Allen, Jr., the nearly ubiquitous fair-minded former Rome correspondent for the ultra-leftist National Catholic Reporter drills away in is Friday missive at the controversy swirling about Notre Shame University.
He makes some good points but raises some questions.
My emphases and comments. I make more observations at the end.
Obama and Notre Dame
By John L Allen Jr
Created Apr 09, 2009
Two great annual festivals of hope, both accompanied by venerable liturgical rites, happen to fall in the same week this year: Opening Day and Easter Sunday. For a Christian and a baseball fan, there’s no better time to be alive. [Right on! The tomb is open and empty! The world springs back to life!]
Emboldened by this air of new possibility, I’d like to float a hope regarding the increasingly acrimonious debate over the University of Notre Dame and its invitation to President Barack Obama to deliver this year’s commencement address. In a nutshell, my hope is that American Catholics will manage their disagreements over the Obama appearance without turning this into yet another nasty front in our version of the culture wars.
For that to happen, two virtues will need to be more in evidence than they have been so far: charity and perspective. [Perspective isn’t in an list of virtues I know… but this isn’t supposed to be a Thomistic treatise. Accept it and read on…]
First, let’s be clear about something: Inviting a pro-choice president of the United States to speak at the country’s premier Catholic university may be highly charged at the level of symbolism and political fallout, but that does not make its advisability a matter of dogma. There’s no heresy implied in either supporting or opposing the move, so Catholics ought to be able to disagree without casting one another as enemies of the faith.
One side believes bringing Obama to Notre Dame will open a conversation, forcing him to confront the church’s teaching on the sanctity of life. The other argues that giving Obama a platform suggests a spirit of “agree to disagree” on critical issues such as abortion and embryonic stem cell research that amounts to compromise with evil. Either side could be wrong, even disastrously so, without thereby committing apostasy. [The word "disastrously" is well chosen. But… don’t "disastrous" stakes compel one to chose a side?]
To date, alas, this has not been the spirit of much conversation.
A poison pen e-mail currently making the rounds, for example, has a picture of a guy behind bars under the fake headline of “Jenkins arrested for impersonating a Catholic.” The reference is to Holy Cross Fr. John Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president. In slightly less acerbic form, similar charges have even come from a few bishops. Those comments should probably be chalked up to the intensity people feel about the pro-life cause, rather than a sober evaluation of Notre Dame’s leadership, because otherwise they’re a tremendous injustice both to Jenkins and to the Congregation of the Holy Cross — an order which, in my experience, doesn’t need lessons from anyone on what it means to be both faithfully Catholic and committed to the educational enterprise. [So, those bishops were less than "sober" when they wrote their letters. What were they? Unhinged? Rash? Uncharitable? Lacking in perspective?]
I speak as someone who taught in a Holy Cross high school in Los Angeles (also named Notre Dame), where I saw the legacy of the order’s founder, Blessed Basil Moreau, in action. [The author has a personal connection with the Holy Cross Fathers. He is up front about it.]
In February 2006, I also happened to be at the Lateran University in Rome when Notre Dame awarded an honorary doctorate to Bishop Salvatore Fisichella, then rector of the Lateran. (Fisichella is now president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, where he plays a lead role in making the case for the unborn.) Both Jenkins and Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria, Ill., a Holy Cross father and a trustee at Notre Dame, delivered perhaps the most impressive treatments of Catholic higher education I’ve ever heard. [The elements involved in the above: the "Pope’s University", the Rector Magnficus of that University, Notre Dame, Fr. Jenkin’s, Bp. Jenky.]
“The church always faces crises,” Jenkins said that day. “Our strength is to face them with reason and hope, [YES WE CAN!] grounded in the gospel; to take confidence in the truth discovered through reason; to never fear the truth; and to show charity towards all.” For his part, Jenky argued that church-run schools “should never choose between being excellent or being Catholic.” Our Catholic tradition, he said, is “so profound, so wide and so self-confident in its exploration of truth that it can dare to ask questions and promote dialogue.” [Okay…. that’s fine. But Pres. Obama was not invited to participate in "dialogue" at Notre Dame. He was invited to be honored.]
One can disagree with particular judgment calls, but let’s not go down the road of questioning the Catholic identity of figures so obviously committed to the intersection of faith and reason. [But, Mr. Allen, I think the controversy which has erupted, and even the tone which has risen, both stem from the fact that that commitment it is no longer "obvious". It should be obvious. People are hurt and alarmed that it is not.]
At the same time, let’s also stipulate that one can be sincerely troubled by the honor Notre Dame appears [I believe an "honorary doctorate" is part of the whole thing] to be bestowing upon the president without thereby becoming a flack for the Republican Party. [Thank you. This is NOT – at least for reasonable people – a matter of partisan politics.]
In a recent interview with The New York Times, Notre Dame ["]theologian["] Fr. Richard McBrien asserted that those unhappy with the invitation are “simply Republicans upset that Obama won the election, and they want to pick a fight.” I’m not sure how true that is sociologically — McBrien knows the personalities at Notre Dame better than I do. In principle, however, one does not have to be a disgruntled McCain voter [ehem… there are those who would disagree that Sen. McCain is the best representative of classic Republican ideals, but Allen’s point is clear] to be alarmed by rolling out the red carpet for a leader whose positions on abortion and embryonic stem cell research are clearly at odds with what the church considers basic principles of justice. [principles about which there can, for Catholics with an obvious sense of commitment, even appear to be compromised.]
Both Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have defined the defense of human life from conception to natural death as the towering human rights struggle of our time. Someone striving to “think with the church” would obviously have grounds for feeling wary about the Obama invitation that go well beyond lust for political payback.
What makes this such a difficult case, in fact, is precisely that both sides are upholding core Catholic values: the sanctity of life and the [wait for it] imperative of dialogue. [This is where some people are going to hear alarm bells. It will be worth discussing in another entry the extent to which "dialogue" is an "imperative" and how to identity the parameters of dialogue. Without question, we must be ready always to engage in dialogue (cf. 1 Peter 3:15-16). But dialogue has its limits (cf. Matthew 11).] Figuring out how to reconcile those values is not easy under the best of circumstances, and hasty certainties don’t help. Neither do unfounded assumptions about the motives of Catholics who reach different conclusions. [Leaving aside the motives, I think we can still judge the actions, no?]
Perspective [that elusive "virtue"]
In a recent essay for National Review Online, noted Catholic author George Weigel asserted that “virtually the entire sentient world” is aware of the melee surrounding Notre Dame and Obama. Unless you define the “sentient world” as the American blogosphere, however, that’s a fairly mammoth over-statement. I just spent two weeks in Cameroon, and I can report that few people there seem worked up over who’s speaking to Irish grads this spring. [Wellllll…. Mr. Allen…. c’mon…]
This is the chronic Achilles’ heel of American Catholicism: we presume that our issues are the world’s issues, often leaving Catholics elsewhere scratching their heads about what they perceive as our insularity. [Yes… but, for Americans who are Catholic this is important. Can we stipulate that what is important for the Catholic Church in the USA is important for the Church in the world? We are not talking about the Church in Tobago, as wonderful as Tobago may be.]
To be sure, the debate over the Obama invite is no tempest in a teapot. The question of how to engage public figures who hold pro-choice views without seeming to endorse, or wink at, those views, is critically important. [Here is the problem. Pres. Obama didn’t accept an invitation to debate or dialogue. He was invited to admonish (commencement) and be honored (honorary doctorate). I don’t think people would be upset if the President were to be part of an open and obvious event of dialogue. The problem is that he is being honored.] At the same time, however, it’s a big, complicated world, and this is hardly the only matter deserving of American Catholic attention. [Yes, I agree. But we can pay attention to more than one thing at the same time. As a matter of fact, we can analyze this particular controversy within the larger context of the Church "in the modern world".]
Here’s an illustration of the point. As it happens, Notre Dame’s commencement ceremony falls on May 17, just two days after Pope Benedict XVI will wind up his May 8-15 visit to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories. It’s arguably the pope’s most important foreign voyage to date, with a host of critical issues on the table: the future of Catholic-Muslim and Catholic-Jewish relations, the fate of shrinking Christian minorities in the Arab world, and the church’s role in promoting Middle East peace, to name just three. The United States and the American Catholic community are, or at least ought to be, major players in all those dramas. [Even though Mr. Weigel was engaging in hyperbole, what goes on in the Church in the USA really is important for the rest of the world… whether the rest of the world knows it or not.]
It would be tragic if the fracas over Notre Dame were to occlude the high stakes of this trip from American eyes. [I sympathize with what Allen is saying. We have seen the media become distracted from important papal events by secular dust ups. I have in mind the coverage of Pope John Paul II going black in the press in favor of the breaking scandal about Pres. Clinton and a certain intern. But the drivers of the Catholic blogosphere (mentioned above by Mr. Allen) are certainly capable of keeping more than one ball in the air at the same time. What the challenge is for the drovers of the Catholic blogosphere is to keep the Notre Dame dust up properly contextualized and not lose sight of other important things happening within the Church. The Pope’s visit to the Holy Land is surely an important secular event with seclar consequences and it must be covered as such. It is also important for the Church herself. ] Keeping the bigger picture in view [i.e., perspective] is not only a matter of justice, but I suspect it would also make the dispute over Obama and Notre Dame seem more manageable. Among other things, it could offer a reminder that what we have in common as Catholics, set against a wider frame of reference, usually looms larger than what divides us. [I agree. Is it not therefore even more important that, our commitment as Catholics to the supremely basic right to life should be obvious?]
Thus I dare to hope that, after an Easter lull in hostilities, combatants in the Notre Dame/Obama row can return to a more charitable exchange, with a deeper sense of perspective. A cynic might contend that’s the Catholic equivalent of believing the Royals have a shot at the pennant, [? riiiiiiight….] but this, after all, is the perennial charm of Opening Day — for a brief moment, anything seems possible.
Mr. Allen’s intention is good, but there are problems. There are inconsistencies.
What his piece raises for me above all, however, is the question about the limits of dialogue.
Catholics must engage in dialogue. We must be involved in the public square. In civil discourse dialogue must have decorum. In classical terms, dialogue must be forged in the crucible of the aptum, the "apt".
At what point does the aptum drive one to make a whip of cords?
Some bishops have made a decision about that point.
Let’s take this in another direction.
It is helpful to look at questions or events in the Church from ad intra and ad extra perspectives, what the event or question means for the Church qua Church within her membership and what they mean for the Church engaged with the whole world.
But the Notre Dame dust up is not primarily a dialogue event with the modern world out in the secular public square.
Is this business at Notre Dame at heart not a struggle within the Church over Catholic identity?
Before we can engage the world effectively in the public square as Catholics, we have to know who we are as Catholics.
The Notre Dame controversy is inciting harshness precisely because the long-needed scrum called dialogue over Catholic identity is now being more closely engaged.
Pope Benedict, I think, has a fundamental objective in his work as a theologian and now as Supreme Pontiff. He seeks to revitalize Catholic identity precisely so that Catholics as individuals and as a Church can contribute with effect in the public square.
Consider: Does anyone really think that President Obama will, by this experience of Notre Dame as Notre Dame presently communicates her Catholic identity to the world, be prompted in the least to reconsider his positions or engage with the Catholic Church in an exchange that is more than a sham?
The escalating debate around Notre Dame reflects a disturbing fact: Notre Dame’s committment, as a Catholic University, to very basic aspects of Catholic teaching is no longer obvious.
It is now a matter for debate. It is now fraught with doubt.
Shouldn’t it be obvious?
Is that too much to ask from a Catholic University?