BE CAREFUL ABOUT WHAT YOU APPLAUD,
YOUR APPLAUSE REVEALS YOUR CHARACTER
I don”t know about you,
but there was one particular moment
in the delivery of Barack Obama’s Commencement Address
at Notre Dame University on Sunday, May 17, 2009
when I was shocked by the enthusiastic applause
with which the assembled student and faculty body
of the University greeted his words.
That moment was when he said:
“Those who speak out against stem cell research
may be rooted in admirable conviction about the sacredness of life,
but so are the parents of a child with juvenile diabetes
who are convinced that their son’s or daughter’s hardships
can be relieved.”
What was so shocking about the statement and the positive reaction of the Notre Dame community to it was that they, more than average persons in the street, should have recognized that the Church has not spoken out agains ALL
stem cell research, but only embryonic stem cell research which necessarily involves the taking of a human life. Further, Obama’s equating the relieving of the hardships associated with juvenile diabetes with the taking of the life of human embryonic person. The spontaneous and sustained applause said to me that the University of Notre Dame had indeed failed in educating these graduates to see that there is no moral equivalence between killing one person in order to alleviate the suffering of another person.
In the excellent essay reproduced below, Phil Lawler has something to say on the subject of the failure of Notre Dame University as a CATHOLIC University:
DID OBAMA BRING HOPE
TO NOTRE DAME?
by Phil Lawler,
May 20, 2009
Now that the incident is behind us,
let me make a confession:
I wasn’t at all surprised
when Notre Dame announced that President Obama
would be the commencement speaker,
and receive an honorary degree.
Perhaps “scandalized” would not be too strong a word.
Not at all.
Let’s be honest:
Notre Dame’s decision
to honor the President was perfectly in keeping
with the overall trend in the university’s policies
over the past 40 years.
The invitation to Obama prompted many conservative Catholics to announce that Notre Dame had sold its birthright– had betrayed its Catholic identity for the sake of secular prestige. I don’t disagree with that diagnosis. But as I read the laments, despite my sympathy with the authors, I couldn’t help but recall that memorable scene in A Man for All Seasons, when Richard Rich tells Cromwell that he is pensive because “I’ve lost my innocence.” Cromwell shoots back: “Some time ago. You only just noticed?”
Notre Dame made the decision to downplay its Catholic identity “some time ago”– in the 1960s, when the Holy Cross fathers ceded administrative control to a lay board, and Father Ted Hesburgh led the charge as the presidents of leading Catholic colleges signed the Land o’ Lakes statement, virtually declaring their independence from the Church magisterium.
For the span of a full generation now, Notre Dame has been plotting its educational course to satisfy secular standards. The school boasts a magnificent Catholic heritage, and there are many fine, devout Catholics on the faculty and in the student body. (In all the times I have visited the campus, I have never passed by the grotto and failed to find someone praying there.) But for most practical purposes Notre Dame has been a secularized institution for decades. It is possible, certainly, to receive a fine and distinctively Catholic education at Notre Dame. But it is also possible to matriculate and graduate as an agnostic– not having consciously rejected the faith, but having remained indifferent through those four crucial years.
A major university should be not only an educational institution but an engine of change, producing bright young people who will bring about change in society. For a distinctively Catholic institution, the goal of that change should be the spread of the Gospel. Students should be formed, enabled, and encouraged to bring their neighbors and colleagues closer to Christ.
Yes, a Catholic school should be an instrument of cultural change. And I feel sure that Notre Dame administrators, past and present, would agree on that point. But here is the crucial consideration: What sort of cultural change does the school encourage? Does the university expect its alumni to change society, to conform to the teachings of the Catholic Church? Or to change the Church, to conform to the prevailing wisdom of secular society. At a typical commencement ceremony (whether or not the President attends), are the graduating seniors exhorted to be loyal Catholics who reform America, or loyal Americans who reform the Church?
(If you cannot quickly answer that question as it applies to Notre Dame, let me pose a second question that might help to clarify things. Over the past 25 years, who has been the most prominent theologian on the Notre Dame faculty? I am not asking for the name of the best theologian, or the one whose work will have the most lasting impact, but the one whose name springs immediately to mind: Father Richard McBrien.)
It is a bleak picture: as bleak as January in northwestern Indiana. Notre Dame is not lost to the faith; many fine Catholic students and professors thrive there. But the university, as an institution, is not dedicated to the pursuit and promotion of truth as the Church proclaims that truth. Which means that Notre Dame, the most prestigious of all America’s Catholic universities, is not really a Catholic university in the true meaning of that term.
But again, this is not news; all this has been true for decades. However, for decades the leadership of the Catholic Church in this country chose to ignore the problem, and maintain the pretence that Notre Dame, and many other similar schools, remained what it had once been: a bastion of the faith.
Now that has “changed, changed utterly.” And with apologies to Yeats, I dare to hope and pray that another “terrible beauty is born.”
With the invitation to President Obama, the administrators under the Golden Dome confirmed what perceptive observers had known for a generation: Notre Dame judges as the world judges. The White House carries enormous prestige. The fact that its current occupant promotes policies inimical to the Catholic faith is an afterthought.
The conflict between what a Catholic university should be and what Notre Dame had become– the “disconnect,” to use the popular term– was suddenly too great to overlook. So over the past several weeks more than 80 American bishops have clearly, explicitly stated that Notre Dame was wrong to honor President Obama at commencement. This display of episcopal leadership is completely unprecedented, at least in my lifetime. After so many years of silence– a silence that appeared to give tacit consent–dozens of bishops have chastised the leaders of a major Catholic institution for their failure to uphold the faith.
President Obama’s appearance at Notre Dame may be forgotten by secular essayists; the event may be mentioned only in the footnotes of American political history. But it could be a major turning point in the history of American Catholicism.
Will this be the incident that finally roused the American hierarchy from its slumber? Will this be the moment at which Catholic educators are forced to confront their responsibilities, to mold their schools into institutions that respect and promote Catholic truth once again? Will Catholic bishops and Catholic institutions make the commitment to challenge popular attitudes, brave public opposition, and resolve to transform our society?
We can hope. We can pray. We can build on the strong statements issued by our bishops in these past weeks, and apply the logic of those statements to other institutions, other conflicts.
Yes, President Obama’s appearance brought hope to Notre Dame. Not in the way he intended.