The Magazine

God and Obama at Notre Dame

The clash between Catholic culture and Catholic colleges.

May 18, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 33 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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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American Catholicism, and how Notre Dame, still living in a 1970s Catholic world, has suddenly awakened to find itself out of date.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.

Fr. Himes went on to tell the Boston Globe, "Some people have simply reduced Catholicism to the abortion issue, and, consequently, they have simply launched a crusade to bar anything from Catholic institutions that smacks of any sort of open conversation." Of course, here, too, there's a level of irony: Out at Notre Dame, the president, Fr. Jenkins, has defended his choice of Obama on the grounds of "conversation," but, now in full-lock down mode, the school hasn't actually scheduled any conversations or debates on the topic. They did invite the 82-year-old Judge John T. Noonan to take Mary Ann Glendon's place on the platform, and he is not, by any means, an unfaithful Catholic or a supporter of abortion. He has the reputation, however, of being one of the dullest speakers in captivity, and the school can't really expect him to provide much "conversation partnership," as Notre Dame calls it, for Barack Obama and his quicksilver rhetoric.

Still, in a peculiar way, Himes is right that "some people have simply reduced Catholicism to the abortion issue." It is a horrifying fact, in many ways, that Roe v. Wade has done more to provide Catholic identity than any other event of the last 50 years. Still, for American Catholics, the Church is a refuge and bulwark against an ambient culture that erodes morality and undermines families. Catholic culture is their counterculture, their means of upholding the dignity of the human person and the integrity of family--and, in that context, the centrality of abortion for American Catholic culture seems much less arbitrary than it first appeared.

This is what the leaders of Notre Dame need to grasp. They do not necessarily have bad theology when they equate the life issues with other concerns. They do not necessarily have bad faith just because they say that war and capital punishment outweigh the million babies killed every year in this country by abortion. But they lack the cultural marker that would make them Catholic in the minds of other Catholics. Abortion is not the only life issue, but it is the one that bears most directly on the lives of ordinary Catholics as they swim against the current to preserve family life. And until Catholic universities understand this, they will not be Catholic--in a very real, existential sense.

Out in Indiana, the flowers are still blooming, the dome is still sparkling, and the protests are still going. Randall Terry promised, "We will make this a circus," and he has certainly tried. Alan Keyes has announced his own Notre Dame protest, complete with his plans to be arrested. "There are unintended consequences to this kind of angry, vituperative language about their opponents," a liberal Catholic named Patrick Whelan grandly told the San Jose Mercury News. "By making themselves pawns of the conservative right, the bishops are playing into a cycle of decline for our Church." And on the South Bend circus goes.

Any Catholic with an ounce of awareness knew this fight was coming. The ordinary Catholic Church and the Catholic colleges were bound to clash, and it's a little unfortunate that it actually spilled into public view with a visit of the president of the United States to the campus of Notre Dame. 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.

There are reasons, however, that the struggle over Catholic culture broke into open battle over a visit of Barack Obama to Notre Dame. In part, it's simply because Obama is the president and a whole lot more prominent than Kerry Kennedy or Donna Brazile or Kamala Harris. But in greater part, it's because Notre Dame is, well, Notre Dame: home of the gold dome, the basilica, the grotto, and Touchdown Jesus. If Georgetown doesn't appear Catholic to ordinary Catholics, that's just Georgetown. But if Notre Dame is shaky--if the most identifiably Catholic place in America doesn't seem Catholic--then the old connection between Catholic culture and Catholic institutions and the Catholic Church really is broken beyond repair. And where will Catholics send their children to school then?

Joseph Bottum is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD and the editor of First Things.