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May 11, 2009

Abortion at Notre Dame

The upcoming issue of the Weekly Standard has the best treatment of the Notre Dame situation that I've seen. The author recognizes that for Catholics this isn't about politics--or not just about politics. It's about what it means to be a Catholic institution.

What all these critics of Glendon share is a sense that Catholic unhappiness with Notre Dame must be about politics. "There is a political game going on here, and part of that is that you demonize the people who disagree with you, you question their integrity, you challenge their character, and you brand these people as moral poison," Fr. Kenneth Himes, chairman of the theology department at Boston College, complained to the Boston Globe. As James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal noted, this was the same Fr. Himes who in 2006 wrote the faculty a letter objecting to an honorary degree for Condoleezza Rice--a letter that read, "On the levels of both moral principle and practical moral judgment, Secretary Rice's approach to international affairs is in fundamental conflict with Boston College's commitment to the values of the Catholic and Jesuit traditions and is inconsistent with the humanistic values that inspire the university's work."

You could cut the irony with a knife: It's only demonizing when conservatives do it. Still Fr. Himes joins Douglas Kmiec, and America, and Commonweal, and the administration of Notre Dame, and most of the newspaper columnists who've weighed in on the controversy, and a surprising number of conservatives. They all look at the Notre Dame protests and think it must be about politics. Bad politics or good politics, take your pick. But politics all the way down.

As it happens, they're wrong. Politics has very little to do with the mess. This isn't a fight about who won the last presidential election and how he's going to deal with abortion. It's a fight about culture--the culture of American Catholicism, and how Notre Dame, still living in a 1970s Catholic world, has suddenly awakened to find itself out of date.

The role of culture is what Fr. Jenkins at Notre Dame and many other presidents of Catholic colleges don't quite get, and their lack of culture is what makes them sometimes seem so un-Catholic--though the charge befuddles them whenever it is made. As perhaps it ought. They know very well that they are Catholics: They go to Mass, and they pray, and their faith is real, and their theology is sophisticated, and what right has a bunch of other Catholics to run around accusing them of failing to be Catholic?

But, in fact, they live in a different world from most American Catholics. Opposition to abortion doesn't stand at the center of Catholic theology. It doesn't even stand at the center of Catholic faith. It does stand, however, at the center of Catholic culture in this country. Opposition to abortion is the signpost at the intersection of Catholicism and American public life. And those who--by inclination or politics--fail to grasp this fact will all eventually find themselves in the situation that Fr. Jenkins has now created for himself. Culturally out of touch, they rail that the antagonism must derive from politics. But it doesn't. It derives from the sense of the faithful that abortion is important. It derives from the feeling of many ordinary Catholics that the Church ought to stand for something in public life--and that something is opposition to abortion.

This is the calculation that the Notre Dame administration failed to make. Take it as a given that it would and will ignore the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which instructed Catholic institutions not to honor individuals who act to support abortion. The university has always held itself apart--it is, after all, the most prestigious Catholic university in the country--surely the rules don't really apply to it. The administrators recognized the prestige attached to a visit from the Historic President and, well, damn the rest. Catholicism can wait for tomorrow, right?

To be honest, this isn't unexpected. Catholicism itself has been mainstreaming for forty years. Vatican II gets blamed a lot, but the USCCB went above and beyond in its accommodation to divorcing Catholicism on Sunday mornings from Catholicism the rest of the week. Relaxing instruction and expectations in "core" Catholic institutions, including at Mass and in religious education, is something all Catholics are used to by now. (This was hilariously and accurately parodied with Dogma's Buddy Christ.)

No bishop has spoken up to support Notre Dame, but the Notre Dame administration is probably thinking: "I didn't leave them, they left me." The administration is not wrong. The USCCB has decided that it has come this far, but no farther. Will its late-recognized authority be recognized? I doubt it:

A better place to make all this public might have been the Sacred Heart University dinner this spring, which honored the pro-abortion activist Kerry Kennedy. Or the Xavier University commencement, which is honoring the pro-abortion political strategist Donna Brazile. Or the University of San Francisco graduation, which is honoring the pro-abortion district attorney (and prominent Proposition 8 opponent) Kamala Harris.

For that matter, the fight should have been held in April, when Georgetown University accommodated President Obama's handlers by covering up the IHS, the monogram for Jesus, on the wall behind the rostrum when Obama spoke on campus. You'd think this really would mark the end for Georgetown. The school typically shrugs off criticism of its lack of Catholicism by proudly declaring its "Jesuit Tradition," but the IHS monogram was the symbol for the Jesuits that St. Ignatius Loyola himself chose when he founded the society in the 16th century.

Read the whole thing.


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posted by Gabriel Malor at 10:51 AM

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