Sunday, March 14, 2010

Review of Charles E. Rice's "What Happened at Notre Dame?

Introduction by Alfred J. Freddoso

"No, What Happened to Notre Dame? is not about Notre Dame’s football fortunes and coaching choices, although perhaps in some sense it is. But to better understand the role the University of Notre Dame plays in the Catholic Church in America, a little historical background comes in useful.

"The University of Notre Dame dates back to the end of 1842, when French-born Rev. Edward Sorin, C.S.C., and seven companions, all members of the recently established Congregation of Holy Cross, took possession of 524 snow-covered acres that the Bishop of Vincennes had given them in the Indiana mission fields. Father Sorin named his fledgling school, in his native tongue, “L’Université de Notre Dame du Lac” (The University of Our Lady of the Lake).

"Fast forward about 50 years to the summer of 1913, when Notre Dame football players Knute Rockne and Gus Dorais could be found practicing the forward pass on an Ohio beach. If Rockne and his teammate had not honed the forward pass as an offensive weapon to advance the ball down the field, Notre Dame today might be as well known nationally as, say, Xavier University in Chicago. That fall, their newly acquired offensive weapon won them victories and sports, and this tiny all-male Catholic college in South Bend, Indiana, went on to become a football power regularly beating the giants of college football, winning national championships, and churning out Heisman trophy winners and All Americans.

"Consequently, the University became an icon of devotion for millions of Catholics, many of them the children and grandchildren of immigrants, who made Notre Dame’s gridiron victories a symbol of their own emergence as “real” Americans able to hold their own--not only in sports but in politics, business, and entertainment. Figures as varied as Archbishop Fulton Sheen, Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, and John F. Kennedy completely finished the work of assimilation. At the same time, the deadly Affluenza epidemic of constantly rising economic status made America and its “values” appear to be completely compatible with their Faith. (Look up the “heresy” of Americanism as condemned by Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical letter to Cardinal Gibbons Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae in 1899 for more information.) Rather than evangelizing the Protestant majority, American Catholics became another denomination that just happened to require Sunday Church attendance and could brag of a longer pedigree and more "culture" than the rest. And the most identifiable Catholic institution on our shores to the 75 percent of Americans who are not Catholic has been the University of Notre Dame.

"All of this a preamble to the incident provoking noted University of Notre Dame law professor and natural law scholar Charles Rice to write this book. That incident was the university’s incendiary invitation to President Barack Obama to speak at its 2009 commencement and to receive an honorary law degree.

"The problem? Simply that Obama’s position on virtually every moral issue in public contention, including marriage, abortion, homosexuality, and embryonic stem cell research, is at odds with the teaching authority of the Church to which Notre Dame theoretically and ostensibly adheres. Imagine the Catholic University of Munich offering a podium, an honorary degree, and a speaking opportunity to one of its lost sons, the democratically elected Adolph Hitler, after Kristallnacht in 1938. Unthinkable, right? But not at Notre Dame in a nation where over 40 million unborn children have lost their lives since 1973 due to a Supreme Court decision that President Obama and his administration enthusiastically uphold.

"Professor Rice’s book is concise, a lawyer’s brief to convict Notre Dame and its administration of committing treason against its history and founding and to contest its continued claim to be a Catholic institution of higher learning. Rice succinctly recounts the university’s invitation to President Obama and the almost immediate outrage from dozens of bishops who felt that they, their confreres, and the Church had been insulted by the University’s open flouting of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical “The Gospel of Life” and the bishops’ statement “Catholics in Public Life.” The latter document explicitly states: “The Catholic community and 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.” Could any statement be clearer?

"Rice next chronicles the university commencement itself--or rather, its two commencements. The official Obama commencement had the air of a political rally, with 12,000 attending, while the alternative one organized by the pro-life student group ND Response and held at the Alumni Gall Chapel, the Grotto, and the South Quad had the character of a retreat. No chanting, no marches, nor disruptions marked this gathering of about 3000. Whether Notre Dame returns to its genuine Catholic identity or continues on its secularizing course, the wisdom of the ND Response will become more obvious with time. As Rice puts it, comparing the event to the beginning of the Irish revolution at the General Post Office in Dublin in 1916, it will be more attractive to say, "I was there on the 17th of May praying at the Grotto.”

"The heart of Rice’s book, however, is the chapter on the infamous Land O’ Lakes conference that took place in a Notre Dame-owned property in Wisconsin in July of 1967. That conference brought together 26 men, almost all priests and educators, presided over by Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, then President of Notre Dame, the same man (now well into his nineties) who ostentatiously attended the Obama commencement. The statement issued at the conclusion of the Land O’ Lakes conference included these words: “To reform its teaching and research functions effectively, the Catholic University must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatsoever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.” In other words, in order to achieve the identity of academic institutions with an emphasis on research rather than teaching, and to qualify for federal and state money, “Catholic” universities must cease…. to be Catholic! And so it is today, with 90 percent of these universities being Catholic in name only.

"As Rice sums up, “Notre Dame made a wrong turn four decades ago.” Or as Fr. Richard John Neuhaus mordantly put it: “The essential formula of Land O’ Lakes is a perfect invitation to follow in the footsteps of the originally Protestant universities, which in the words of Prof. George Marsden have gone ‘from Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief.’”

"Is there hope for the lapsed Catholic university? Rice offers no easy optimism, but he does give a prescription for relief, if the university is willing to take it. “The President, Fellows, and Trustees who perpetrated the honoring of Obama have forfeited their right to continue in positions of responsibility at Notre Dame… if Notre Dame is to survive it must repudiate the mistake it made at Land O’ Lakes. That would require a full acceptance of Ex Corde Ecclesiae which guarantees appropriate autonomy and academic freedom but insists on ‘adherence to the teaching authority of the Church in matters of Faith and Morals.’” Rice also insists that Notre Dame accept as necessary in practice what Pope John Paul II taught: “it is the honor and responsibility of a Catholic University to consecrate itself without reserve to the cause of Truth.”

"Will this happen? Unlikely, but one can hope and pray for this outcome. There are some instances of much smaller Catholic colleges gradually returning to faithfulness to the Magisterium and the truth—Franciscan University of Steubenville and Providence College come to mind.

"For the time being Notre Dame will remain “A public university in a Catholic Neighborhood,” as chair of the Notre Dame Philosophy Department Alfred Freddoso put it in his excellent Introduction to Rice’s book. Perhaps it will take some years before the Congregation of Catholic Education in Rome makes an effort to define more clearly what a Catholic university is and what sanctions should be set when a nominally Catholic university goes astray. And perhaps the much younger new bishop of South Bend and Fort Wayne will provide more “acta” and fewer “verba.”

"After all, there is no more valuable brand name in religion than that of “Catholic.” Millions have suffered or chosen death rather than deny it. Meanwhile, take a good look at the 21 real Catholic Colleges that can be found on the web site of the Cardinal Newman Society. They provide the real thing--Catholic liberal arts education grounded in Faith and the unashamed search for Truth. Okay, so they don’t have Division One football teams, but then, the Notre Dame football program has fallen on hard times. Perhaps Our Lady is looking for a new Catholic university football team to sponsor. Ave Maria University, anybody? Rockne himself, a Catholic convert, would surely approve."

Matthew Kenefick

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