Notre Dame's recent history shows what happens when a supposedly Catholic university puts academic prestige above its religious ethos

An article by David Carlin for The Catholic Thing last Friday attracted my attention with its provocative title: “Notre Dame and the Hungry Sheep”. I realised it must concern Notre Dame, the famous American Catholic university, so was interested in what the writer had to say. It seems that Notre Dame has awarded its prestigious Laetare Medal to Vice President Joe Biden. What’s wrong with that? After all, Biden is a professed Catholic, occupying a job that’s only a heartbeat away from the presidency.

Actually the news is very disquieting – though not, perhaps, a surprise, given Notre Dame’s somewhat flaky record as to its Catholic identity. Vice President Biden is a defender of abortion rights and same-sex marriage, both positions incompatible with his Catholic faith. Inevitably, this gives scandal to everyone, students and their families, American Catholics in general and also those outside the Church, who rightly suspect that if you are a Catholic in public life in the US, you can easily readjust your conscience to fit in with popular mores.

Carlin mentions that when Notre Dame gave President Obama an honorary degree in 2009, there was a strongly negative reaction. In fact more than 300,000 people signed a petition condemning it and it was severely criticised by 70 bishops. And Obama is not a Catholic, as Joe Biden is. Carlin comments that the university seems to think “that a compromise can be worked out between Catholicism and the secular humanism that is culturally dominant in the United States today”, adding the warning, “But that way lies madness. For the history of 20th century liberal Protestantism demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that the attempt to find a happy via media between Christianity and anti-Christianity leads to the eventual triumph of anti-Christianity.”

Carlin’s article reminded me that I was sent a book last year by its author, E Michael Jones, entitled Is Notre Dame Still Catholic?, published by Fidelity Press. The reason I didn’t read it at the time was that I feared the answer to the title would be “No” and I did not have the stomach to learn why. Since coming across Carlin’s article I have now made myself do it and it is as I feared – and as the 2016 Laetare award to Joe Biden confirms: in chapter after chapter Jones provides documentary evidence of a whole series of scandals which Notre Dame has been involved in over the years, such as allowing experimentation to be conducted on a 20-week old aborted foetus; employing a self-confessed atheist in its theology department; and showing on campus films such as the blasphemous The Last Temptation of Christ and the morally degrading The Vagina Monologues.

First published in 1988, the book’s second edition in 2009 includes a chapter, Obama Nation at Notre Dame, which discusses the furore following the honorary degree conferred on the President. John Beaumont, author of The Mississippi Flows into the Tiber; a Guide to Notable American Converts to the Catholic Church, which I have blogged about last year, who is currently editing a number of books based on Jones’s articles, tells me that Is Notre Dame Still Catholic? is an accurate analysis of the situation at this once Catholic institution.

According to Jones – and Beaumont – it was Fr Theodore Hesburgh, the late President of Notre Dame, who set all the subsequent scandals and problems in motion by his Land O’Lakes statement of 1967 which declared that “the Catholic University must have true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical”. This, according to Jones, “effectively severed Notre Dame from any juridical relationship with the Catholic Church.”

The subsequent history of Notre Dame shows what happens when a supposedly Catholic university puts academic prestige above its Catholic identity. Hesburgh once commented in frustration that Jones was “a character who makes a life work out of knocking Notre Dame”. Perhaps it would be more true to say that he and his successors, down to the present day and the award of the Laetare Medal to Joe Biden, who have proved the real undoing of this famous institution?

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