While Trinity is thriving, we are part of a sector of American higher education that is increasingly under siege. The nation’s 245 Roman Catholic colleges and universities are heirs to more than a century of progressive efforts to win acceptance in the mainstream of the American academy. The hard and thoughtful work of numerous Catholic scholars and educational leaders in the middle of the 20th century modernized the governance, curricula and scholarly frameworks of our institutions. The previous great generation of Catholic academic and intellectual leaders --- including such luminaries as Jesuit Father John Courtney Murray, Monsignor John Tracy Ellis, former Notre Dame President Father Theodore Hesburgh, and Trinity’s own President Sister Margaret Claydon -- moved Catholic higher education out of the insular, parochial consequences of this nation’s 19th and early 20th century anti-Catholic, anti-intellectual propensities.
These great leaders of the Vatican II era developed a rich and extensive body of thought supporting the fundamental premise that our faith should not fear freedom, but rather, embrace it; that we must engage with our culture, not shun it; and that Catholic universities must have the same high intellectual standards as all universities, nurturing academic freedom as the bedrock of excellence in scholarship and teaching. The progressive influence of Catholic higher education in the last 50 years propelled lay Catholics into the mainstream of our nation’s social and political life, opening doors to places where once we were held in suspicion or even barred because of rampant religious discrimination.
Today, a half century of progress for Catholic higher education is at risk of slipping back into those insular, parochial pre-Vatican II days. On Sunday, on the campus of the University of Notre Dame, a drama unfolded that will affect the future of all Catholic colleges, and, indeed, will affect the place of Catholics in American life. As has been a tradition at the University of Notre Dame, the president of the United States spoke  at the university’s commencement.
Notre Dame has invited many presidents in the past without fear or favor regarding their political positions. But the announcement of President Obama’s appearance triggered one of the angriest and most aggressively hostile efforts to block a commencement speaker ever endured by any American university. The fundamental issue is about the Church’s teachings on the right to life and the contrary policies of the Obama Administration. But there’s more to the Notre Dame case than the obvious clash between religious dogma and secular politics.
This is not about bishops exercising their rightful responsibilities to call Catholic institutions to fidelity to Church teachings. Nor is this about the right of individual Catholics to voice concerns about institutional actions. Disagreement and passionate argumentation are a normal part of university life, and religion sharpens the edges of any debate about university activities. For all Catholic universities, close and continuous dialogue with our bishops is an essential part of our stewardship of the Catholic intellectual tradition; Catholic college presidents frequently must exercise prudential judgment in making sure that the local bishop is not surprised by the appearance, if not the reality of dissent from Church teachings in university activities.
But something else is at work in the Notre Dame case.
The real scandal at Notre Dame today is not that the president of the United States spoke at commencement, albeit causing some controversy among Catholics. The real scandal is the misappropriation of sacred teachings for political ends. The real scandal is the spectacle of ostensibly Catholic mobs camping out at Notre Dame for the specific purpose of disrupting the commencement address of the nation’s first African American president. This ugly spectacle is an embarrassment to all Catholics. The face that Catholicism shows to our new president should be one marked with the sign of peace, not distorted in the snarl of hatred.
The religious vigilantism apparent in the Notre Dame controversy arises from organizations that have no official standing with the Church, but who are successful in gaining media coverage as if they were speaking for Catholicism. The media loves nothing more than a good Catholic versus Catholic fight, a self-destructive civil war that has no winners save the anti-Catholic underground that finds joy and vindication in watching Catholics strangle each other with litmus tests about fidelity. The self-appointed “watchdogs” of Catholic higher education also afflict Catholics in political life, acting as grand inquisitors who appear to want nothing more than to drive all Catholics away from public office. They have established themselves as uber-guardians of a belief system we can hardly recognize. Theirs is a narrow faith devoted almost exclusively to one issue. They defend the rights of the unborn but have no charity toward the living. They mock social justice as a liberal mythology.
Catholicism is not a one-issue faith. The social justice teachings that are central to our Church’s moral construction demand that we act in defense of the sacred dignity of all human life, from conception through salvation. Ours is a faith that demands peace and decries unjust war even as we demand that the unborn child have a right to live --- not mere life, but a life that can realize the full potential of the Creator’s divine plan as a matter of justice. Ours is a faith that is profoundly intolerant of racism and the exploitation of women, of poverty and the violence that economic injustice spawns. Ours is a faith that demands a more just sharing of the world’s resources, more pervasive global education to remediate the illiteracy that condemns children to repeat the cycles of poverty of prior generations. Ours is a faith that finds the use of torture for any reason an abhorrent offense against life. Ours is a faith that calls each member to take the option for the poor, to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters on this planet, to exercise the responsibilities of our citizenship fully, to honor the rights and dignity of workers, to be moral stewards of God’s creation --- all in the name of life. This is what it really means to be “pro-life.”
Catholicism is a faith of charity and hope, not hatred, bigotry, self-righteous condemnation. To be Catholic is to embrace the world in all of the remarkable diversity that is part of creation; to be a university is also to embrace the world in the fullness of its intellectual scope and in the endlessness of the human quest for knowledge, meaning and, ultimately, Truth. A Catholic university realizes that the differences of opinion that are the plain reality of human thought are not at all a danger to our faith, but rather, a manifestation of the freedom that God has given to every human being to think, to learn, to engage the quest for that Truth that can never be fully known in this life. Those who claim to know the Truth already claim a power that is God’s alone.
The terrible danger of the siege at Notre Dame, and the ugly specter of Catholic vigilantism’s efforts to intimidate Catholic academic leaders and politicians, is that Catholics will be driven back to the edges of American life, unable or unwilling to be elected to public office, as we once were, unable or unwilling to engage with our colleagues of other faith traditions in the difficult, bruising, uncomfortable yet utterly necessary debates about essential moral issues that contribute to the shape of our society.
The great opportunity in the Notre Dame controversy is the renewal of our commitment to the robust intellectual life of Catholic colleges and universities as the best possible means to ensure the vitality of our faith in public life. If we live the duality of our mission well, neither our freedom nor our faith will suffer harm, and both will be enlarged.
This is a mission that calls us to create campus communities that respect the human person; to minister to the spiritual as well as intellectual needs of these communities; to ensure that the teachings of the Church are fairly and accurately presented. Fidelity to those teachings does not require shunning all other forms of expression. We should make even greater use of the teachable moments when the clash of ideas reveals the need for better research and scholarship on the most critical issues we face, not just as Catholics but as citizens of a very complicated society. Catholic institutions of higher education should be contributing significantly more research and scholarship than we have thus far on those core issues where faith and politics collide: the right to life, economic and social justice, universal education, environmental destruction, equal justice, keeping the peace.
We live our mission as Catholic universities in the sunlight, not in caves; we teach and learn from the center of the culture, not on the margins. Evangelization’s best work occurs in uncharted territories among those who do not share our faith already. We engage every human being who is a child of God and part of his creation; and whether we agree or disagree with that person, every child of God belongs on our campuses. And when that child happens to be the president of the United States, so much the better for the fruitful opportunity to open new avenues of dialogue about the future breadth and depth and moral foundation and legal construction of that Good Society we so earnestly seek.
Here at Trinity, let us take from the controversy at Notre Dame a renewed commitment to give witness to the fullness of our faith tradition, not indulging the moral relativism of repressing faith for the sake of getting along, nor cowering in fear of the moral absolutists who would have us hear no voices but their own. As a Catholic college with a long and proud tradition of educating leaders for the public sector, with a mission commitment to action for social justice that comes to us from our founders, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, we must not shy away from using our intellectual firepower to push the current debate away from the self-destructive precipice of Catholics set against Catholics. We must lead this debate toward the more life-giving mission in true Christian evangelization, teaching all nations the imperatives of justice and peace through which human life will, most assuredly, reap significantly greater protection than the current intractable arguments will ever achieve on their own.
Patricia McGuire is president of Trinity Washington University. This essay is adapted from the commencement address she delivered Sunday to the Trinity Class of 2009.