William Dempsey / July 19, 2016
In this bulletin on the Laetare Medal/Vice President Joe Biden episode, we consider its broad significance. As Bishop Kevin Rhoades declared, the University of Notre Dame has given scandal, but there is much more.
In publicly spurning the counsel of Notre Dame’s (and his) bishop for the third time, University President Father John Jenkins has further undermined the crucially important relationship between Notre Dame and the Church. More, he rejected the recommendations for honorees from a faculty committee and took an action he knew would divide alumni, becloud the commencement and again stain Notre Dame’s reputation in the pro-life community.
His actions mark the ascendancy of the “Land O’ Lakes Statement,” the charter for the secularization of Catholic universities, over Ex corde Ecclesiae, Pope John Paul II’s charter for the preservation of their Catholic identity.
Ex corde Ecclesiae v. Land O’ Lakes
Father Wilson Miscamble, C.S.C., award-winning Notre Dame historian and author of For Notre Dame: Battling for the Heart and Soul of a Catholic University, has characterized the battle at Notre Dame as a “debate between these two documents,” Land O’ Lakes and Ex corde Ecclesiae.
“How this contest gets worked out in practice,” he has declared, “will determine the future of Notre Dame.”
The Land O’ Lakes 1967 statement by representatives of 26 Catholic universities, mostly Jesuit, coincided with the astonishingly swift transfer of control of almost all Catholic schools, including Notre Dame, to lay-dominated boards. Father Theodore Hesburgh chaired the meeting, held at the Holy Cross Land O’ Lakes facility in Wisconsin.
The statement opened with a declaration of independence from the Church:
To perform its teaching and research functions effectively the Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.
The statement sounded this self-sufficiency theme throughout, as Father James T. Burtchaell, C.S.C., former provost of Notre Dame, explained in his masterful study of the secularization of religious schools The Dying of the Light.
“From the Church,” he writes, “the university asks only to be left alone.” Again, “Apart from a wary welcome to theology,” which should be “explored ‘critically,’” “no other means to make Catholicism perceptively present and effectively active is mentioned” (pp. 594-5).
Land O’ Lakes does not co-exist comfortably with Ex corde Ecclesiae, Pope John Paul II’s 1990 definitive description of the essential elements of a Catholic university, which has been applied to the United States by its bishops in a 1999 decree.
In Land O’ Lakes, the Church is held at a distance. In Ex corde Ecclesiae, in contrast,
Every Catholic University, without ceasing to be a University, has a relationship to the Church that is essential to its institutional identity. One consequence … is a recognition of and adherence to the teaching authority of the Church in matters of faith and morals.
The bishops are the Church’s representatives in this relationship. They “have a particular responsibility to promote and assist in the preservation and strengthening of the Catholic identity” of Catholic universities. They “should be seen not as external agents but as participants in the life of the Catholic University,” and there should be “close personal and pastoral relationships between University and Church authorities, characterized by mutual trust, close and consistent cooperation and continuing dialogue.”
Notre Dame and Her Bishops
Fr. Jenkins began his presidency with a very public dispute with Bishop John M. D’Arcy over the student production of “The Vagina Monologues,” a startlingly graphic paean to lesbian sex.
Fr. Jenkins knew this was coming. Bishop D’Arcy had condemned then-president Father Edward Malloy’s approval of this production when it was first staged in 2004, citing Ex corde Ecclesiae and noting, “The bishop is the teacher within his diocese, bearing special responsibility on moral issues, especially when the souls of young people are involved.”
Next came Bishop D’Arcy’s denunciation of the honoring of President Obama, which was echoed by 82 other cardinals, archbishops and bishops. In a notable America article, the bishop discussed both the “Vagina Monologues” and Obama episodes in terms of the link between Notre Dame and the Church, his relationship with Fr. Jenkins, the choice between Land O’ Lakes and Ex corde Ecclesiae, and the responsibility of the board of trustees.
He disclosed, for example, that Fr. Jenkins “chose not to dialogue with his bishop on these two matters, both pastoral and both with serious ramifications for the care of souls, which is the core responsibility of the local bishop.” This, he wrote, raised serious questions:
What is the relationship of the Catholic university to the local bishop? No relationship? Someone who occasionally offers Mass on campus? Someone who sits on the platform at graduation? Or is the bishop the teacher in the diocese, responsible for souls, including the souls of students—in this case, the students at Notre Dame?
Bishop D’Arcy cited Dr. John Cavadini, then chair of the theology department:
The statement of our President [Father Jenkins] barely mentions the Church. It is as though the mere mention of a relationship with the Church has become so alien to our ways of thinking and so offensive to our quest for a disembodied “excellence” that it has become impolite to mention it at all. There is no Catholic identity apart from the affiliation with the Church.
Finally, there is the breach between Fr. Jenkins and Bishop Rhoades over the award of the Laetare Medal to Vice President Biden.
Bishop Rhoades advised Fr. Jenkins that his action would cause scandal. Who can doubt it? Reasonable people will assume that Notre Dame would not confer this honor “for service to the Church” upon Biden if it took seriously his well-known pro-choice view and his support of same-sex marriage (to say nothing of his support of embryonic stem cell research and the Obamacare contraception mandate).
Even those present at the commencement were unlikely to take seriously Fr. Jenkins’ bizarre disclaimer — “many of us have grave moral doubts about some of your actions” — as he handed Biden the award.
It is instructive to listen to someone with actual experience. A former Minnesota legislator, James Seifert (ND ‘79), wrote us in part:
Based on my own experience in the Minnesota legislature, conferring public praise by a national symbol of the Church on Catholics like Joe Biden has secondary consequences that are devastating. … [P]ro-choice Catholics troll for votes from other Catholics with the very persuasive argument that if it wasn’t OK to be a pro-choice Catholic, Notre Dame would never have awarded a pro-choice Catholic its highest award.
The Laetare Medal Conundrum
The most puzzling, and troublesome, question is why Fr. Jenkins took this action. In the “Vagina Monologues” case, there was faculty pressure and (flimsy) assertions of academic freedom. In the Obama case, there was, well, the president, and a (sort of) tradition. Here, Father Jenkins rejected a faculty committee’s recommendations for honorees as noted above.
And for what? To convert the Laetare Medal into a civics award to politicians whom no one would call distinguished but who have generally (though certainly not always) been affable with opponents, and who are generally (though certainly not always) inclined toward compromise rather than conflict.
This is a meager reward at high price, surely. It suggests Fr. Jenkins may have seen benefit in demonstrating Notre Dame’s absolute independence of its bishop and willingness to disregard criticism by “too Catholic” alumni and pro-life and pro-marriage organizations and laity.
This is a deeply worrisome affair.
A version of this article was originally published on the website of Sycamore Trust.
William Dempsey is the president of Sycamore Trust, an organization that provides a source of information, a means of communication, and a collective voice to Notre Dame alumni and others in the Notre Dame family who are concerned about preserving the Catholic identity of the University.