Moving Past the Notre Dame Furor

Catholic college presidents, in starting round of discussions with bishops, hope revisions in key 2004 document might prevent some future controversies.
June 22, 2009

At the center of this spring's controversy over the University of Notre Dame’s commencement speaker – President Obama – were two sentences from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 2004 document, "Catholics in Political Life."

“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,” a bullet-pointed item of the document reads. In Obama’s case, many argued, allowing him to speak and granting him an honorary doctorate of laws (i.e., giving him a platform and an honor) would suggest Notre Dame’s support for the president’s pro-choice positions.

The document in question -- created in the course of the 2004 political campaign amid debate over whether the pro-choice Democratic presidential candidate, Senator John Kerry, should be denied Communion -- was not explicitly about Catholic colleges at all. But since then, it has come up repeatedly in relation to controversies over colleges’ selection of speakers. At its meeting earlier this month, the board of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities discussed a desire for the bishops to revisit the document. They were responding, according to ACCU’s executive director, Richard Yanikoski, to a request for input from the chair of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Catholic Education. “There's not a confrontation here. I think that both the bishops and the presidents understand that we can improve the document,” said Yanikoski.

While the board had a wide-ranging discussion, instead of taking a specific position, “In general, there are some things that we feel need to be addressed," Yanikoski said. "One is, to what extent are we primarily or exclusively talking about Catholics in political life, or all Catholics? Secondly how does it apply to individuals who are not Catholic?" (Obama is not, leading many to wonder how he could be in defiance of church teaching.)

“Third,” Yanikoski continued, “does it make any difference whether the person in question is, say, of a stature of a president of the United States, when considering whether it’s appropriate to be invited? A bigger question, and I literally mean that, it’s a more central question, is should we distinguish between honors and awards in one group, and platforms as a distinct category? Presently they’re all lumped together.”

“Most presidents that I’m aware of believe that it would be fruitful to separate those categories…. One is very personal. You’re honoring presumably an individual. Whereas a platform, you could think of a platform in terms of well, if it’s a person who has an objectionable view about issue A but is coming to speak about issue B, of which their views are deemed to be quite good, must you prohibit them from addressing any issue or only the objectionable issue?” (Again, with Obama, while his positions on abortion are contrary to those of the church, when it comes to many issues of social justice, for instance, many Catholics would share his values.)

“These are just examples of the kinds of questions around which there is presently ambiguity," Yanikoski said.

Yet, ultimately, as Yanikoski readily pointed out, the document is the bishops’ document, not the presidents', and any timetable is the bishops', too. The United States Conference on Catholic Bishops’ education committee is chaired by the Most Rev. Thomas J. Curry, Auxiliary Bishop in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. The diocesan communications office did not respond Friday to two phone messages and one e-mail message seeking an interview with Bishop Curry. In a recent interview with the National Catholic Reporter, however, Bishop Curry indicated that the 2004 policy is under discussion: “I don’t think you can say, ‘Okay, we had a 2004 statement and that’s the end of it.’ No, the 2004 statement is a significant statement, it has to be taken into account, but we’re in a continual process of thinking and discernment about our relationship with the political situation, which is constantly changing," he told the Reporter.

"I really hope that we can see this [the Notre Dame controversy] as an opportunity for some greater dialogue around these questions and that we can find a way forward," said David Gentry-Akin, a professor of theology at Saint Mary's College of California. “If the bishops want to say something about what would be appropriate in the context of a Catholic university, they need to issue a statement addressing that set of questions specifically. And hopefully they would engage in some dialogue with the ACCU and the presidents of Catholic colleges and universities so that they could craft a statement that everyone could buy into and would see as helpful," Gentry-Akin said.

Catholic colleges, after all, operate in very specific contexts, and the 2004 statement on politicians didn't address them. “One of the core principles in Catholicism is this notion, of, well, the Pope often says in Latin, et, et -- both, and. We want to be Catholic unambiguously and we want to be a credible university. It’s much easier, because it’s much more black and white, to do one of those things or the other. It’s much harder to try to do the both, and, thing -- of being very deeply rooted in the tradition and also be a place that engages ideas and currents of thoughts that go outside the tradition," Gentry-Akin said.

The presidents’ desire to revisit the 2004 document, however, has already come under criticism from some in the more conservative wing of the church, who see it not as an attempt at dialogue between bishops and presidents, but instead as an effort by colleges to skirt their responsibilities to be unambiguously Catholic institutions.

“When I saw yesterday that announcement from the ACCU, I thought” – he sighed heavily – “another reason I don’t belong to that organization. I am just mortified by them telling the American Catholic bishops to get out of their way,” said the Rev. Robert W. Cook, president of Wyoming Catholic College, a particularly orthodox institution that asks all of its faculty to take oaths of fidelity each year (uncommon among Catholic colleges) and restricts use of the Internet and cell phones on campus. As for a need to clarify the 2004 document, “I think the document is clear, and by no means should it have a legalistic approach made to it in a refusal to understand its real meaning,” Father Cook said. “Its real meaning is Catholic colleges and universities should not allow people teaching things contrary to the Catholic faith to be on their campus teaching or speaking those things. It’s so clear. Why would a place that’s Catholic invite someone to come and promote abortion? What’s the point of doing that? It’s not like this is a debatable issue for a Catholic. So why have any discussion about it?”

What if a supporter of abortion rights came to campus, but not to discuss abortion? "The problem I think that arises in those instances is the question of how will the public and students and their parents read this person's presence? In the case of President Obama, he is so categorically pro-abortion that it mattered not what else he had to talk about, because it was going to be read by everyone as in some way allowing him a platform at a Catholic college to promote the entirety of his agenda," Father Cook said.

While the controversy at Notre Dame was notable in part for the large number of bishops who publicly spoke out against the Obama visit (although many point out, still, that more bishops kept quiet than spoke out), others contacted for this story stressed that bishops and college presidents aren't, or shouldn't be, on opposite sides here. "The fact that the ACCU is talking to the bishops' conference is good news. There is no reason why two groups who value the welfare of our church should be at odds. Both groups should be wary of those who would use our church for partisan political advantage,” said Nicholas P. Cafardi, a dean emeritus and professor of law at Duquesne University who was in the news last year for backing Obama.

“What I’ve found encouraging is a number of the bishops seem to be interested in opening up the conversation again on these issues. So there’s a mutual concern to do better than just this one paragraph that’s been used as a kind of weapon, which I don’t think it was ever intended to be,” said the Rev. Charles L. Currie, president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities.

"The point I've been trying to make is we need a conversation between bishops and presidents, bishops and universities, to work some of these things out. Universities have to recognize the responsibility of the bishops to teach the faith, bishops have to recognize the culture of a university. It's not a seminary, it's not a parish, it's a very complex organization," Father Currie said.

Added Notre Dame’s university spokesman, Dennis Brown: “Without getting into specifics, we always welcome dialogue among Catholic university presidents and U.S. bishops as we work toward common understanding on any issue.”

Meanwhile, for Notre Dame’s Faculty Senate, which issued its own statement supporting the university’s invitation to Obama in April, the bishops’ 2004 statement simply didn’t come up as a matter of discussion, said Thomas Gresik, the senate chair and a professor of economics. “What I can tell you is at no point in the Faculty Senate deliberations was there any discussion of the bishops’ statement itself,” said Gresik.

“The guiding principal that I think led to the Faculty Senate’s statement regarding President Obama’s visit and his honorary degree was basically the principle that he is the president of our country, that the university’s had a long-standing tradition of honoring our presidents, and that this was consistent with that tradition – and that the act itself did not endorse any of President Obama’s positions, positively or negatively.”


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