Early this month came the news that Notre Dame has agreed, at last, to drop the trespassing charges it had been pressing against the protesters who marched on its campus two years ago. The pro-life protesters. At a Catholic school.
Of course, what those protesters were objecting to back in 2009 was the awarding of an honorary law degree to President Obama, which may not have been the best occasion to complain about the way Catholic colleges have been willing to ignore the pro-life sentiment that motivates much of the Catholic population (to say nothing of the teachings of their church). That same spring saw events of equal contradiction, as when Sacred Heart University hosted a dinner for Kerry Kennedy and Xavier University honored Donna Brazile.
But, in the event, it was the visit of the pro-abortion Barack Obama to Notre Dame that kindled the fight—simply because the combination was so conspicuous: the president of the United States and the nation’s most famous Catholic school. And so several hundred pro-life activists showed up to denounce the school’s betrayal of the pro-life cause. And Notre Dame, profoundly embarrassed by that march, had the protesters arrested and hauled off to jail.
Sources at Notre Dame report that the university has agreed to drop the charges mostly in the hope that no one will notice. The president, Fr. John Jenkins, still believes the pro-life figures should be prosecuted, but a trial would have brought the protests back into the news—and produced another round of bad publicity for the school. Better, Notre Dame reluctantly decided, to let the whole thing slip away into obscurity.
It’s tempting to interpret all this as part of the relentless fawning on left-leaning power by Catholic colleges. Many commentators back in 2009 proclaimed Notre Dame the poster child for an entire culture of academic Catholicism, in which the old schools were running as fast as they could from their Catholic heritage, in a desperate attempt to make themselves indistinguishable from Berkeley, Bennington, and Bowdoin.
That’s not exactly wrong. Lord knows, the advantages of the Catholic educational system have been squandered in any number of ways. But there is another theme in the story that needs to be noticed, another thread that needs to be traced.
What was missing from most accounts of the 2009 protests was a clear memory of the assurance that almost all Catholics had, once upon a time, about Catholicism in America—their confidence that the Catholic Church was going to call the nation to a higher morality even while it was providing intellectual support for the continuance of our great Enlightenment experiment. America and Catholicism. Catholicism and America. It was supposed to be an easy fit, a smooth collaboration.
Oh, back in the eighteenth century, when Charles Carroll signed the Declaration of Independence and his cousin John Carroll became the first Catholic bishop in America, nobody imagined that it would be easy. And through the nineteenth century, when the states were passing Blaine Amendments to their constitutions and anti-immigration agitation was indistinguishable from anti-Catholicism, an American Catholicism appeared impossible. But in the long run from the Second World War through the 1980s—as Americans elected their only Catholic president and Catholic colleges grew in national importance—the acceptance of Catholicism in America came to seem a natural, almost inevitable thing.
Something more than acceptance, for that matter. Call it the Murray Project, after John Courtney Murray, the Jesuit priest whose 1960 book We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition became the central text of public-intellectual life for Catholics in America. The far left would eventually drift off into the thin air of a Marxist-influenced Liberation Theology, while the far right retreated to the dying fires of a Spanish-influenced notion of throne and altar. But for most American Catholics, whether middle left or middle right, Murray was the great explicator and prophet of the new Catholic role.
And what Murray seemed to explain was a way in which Catholicism would save America. By the early 1970s, it was apparent that the mainline Protestant churches were in headlong decline, no longer capable of playing their traditional part in the American Experiment. The Evangelicals were rising, but they lacked the intellectual and institutional resources to replace the dying mainline. And so it fell to Catholicism to provide the missing support for the national proposition. Like every political arrangement, the American experiment had always relied on an implicit theo-politics, a generally agreed-upon understanding of the relation of God and man, and Catholicism appeared ready to be slotted in as the new theo-political pillar of the nation.
Then came abortion—or, at least, the clear political divisions over abortion—and suddenly, from the early 1980s on, the Murrayans of the left and the Murrayans of the right were at each other’s throats. People like the Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon, who refused to participate in the controversial 2009 Notre Dame graduation when it became clear that she was being used to defang the pro-life complaints, were no longer perceived as liberal Catholics. People like Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, the longtime president of Notre Dame and liberal stalwart, were no longer perceived as traditional Catholics. The old Catholic confidence—the idea that the faith was going to provide both support and moral guidance for the nation—broke apart.
The curious part, however, was the way that it broke. The liberals, the left wing of the Murrayans, chose the political side, electing to join and support the American political establishment. And the conservatives, the right wing of the Murrayans, chose the moral side, electing to use Catholicism to call the nation to a higher morality that sees abortion as an outrage against human dignity.
The result is things like the clash on Notre Dame’s campus in 2009. No doubt the protesters believed themselves good Americans. And no doubt Fr. Jenkins, president of a Catholic school, believed himself to be pro-life. But the sides they’ve chosen in the Murray Project compel them all to certain behaviors—on the one hand, to march against the simple appearance of a pro-choice American president at a Catholic college, and, on the other hand, to have Catholics arrested for protesting abortion.
Notre Dame’s decision to allow the 2009 trespassing charges to be dropped is not a solution to this divide. It’s not even a papering over of the split. The Catholicism that pursues power and acceptance in America and the Catholicism that pursues a moral agenda will not be reconciled—not, at least, until the abortion fight in this country is either abandoned or won.
Joseph Bottum is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and the author, most recently, of The Second Spring.