Monday, April 6, 2009

A Catholic University?

I have been following the events at Notre Dame with great curiosity, and when I read what Sharon blogged (she has links to everyone else, so just read what she wrote and follow her links) on the subject, I sensed an invitation in her post. So, here I am!

Every time I began to think about the president's invitation to speak at (and to receive an honorary degree from) Notre Dame, a conversation I once overheard would run through my mind. A Catholic philosopher who was teaching at the University of Chicago was speaking to the dean of one of the colleges that is considered more orthodox and serious about its Catholic identity. The philosopher observed that he could always tell which of his students were either Catholic or Jewish from the rest of the students. The dean asked him how he could tell, and the philosopher replied, "The Catholic and Jewish students all have a sense that there are other countries in the world, that people speak other languages, that in the past there were people, people who came from cultures very different from our own, who thought great things and whose works are worthy of examination." The dean seemed bemused and then said, "Well, we know our students are Catholic because daily Mass on campus is packed with students, because they often gather together to pray the rosary, and because a majority of them major in theology, and because they engage in a multitude of pro-life activities." And that was the end of the conversation.

I think that Stephen (not my husband, but a good friend) is right that the people who now decry Notre Dame's invitation to President Obame are (more or less) the same people who have been suspicious of Notre Dame's claim to being a truly Catholic institution. It seems that this controversy provides them with a litmus test -- to judge just how "Catholic" Notre Dame is. Will Notre Dame waver under the barage of email, phone messages and letters of protest, or will she remain "Catholic in name only"?

The question about what makes a University Catholic and what makes its students Catholic seems to be the unspoken heart of the whole brouhaha. There is enormous pressure on the students to "prove" their Catholicism by protesting or even boycotting their graduation ceremony.

What troubles me is that this drive to reject a man (who is after all, our president) seems neither human nor Christian. Many of the children in my atrium pray for President Obama that he may be a good president and make good decisions. A few pray that he will stop killing babies. Both prayers indicate a commitment toward his person, toward his humanity, I think. These prayers imply a relationsionship with the man. If we want these things for him, for his ultimate good, then we must spend time with the man. Jesus spent more time with Pharisees than he did even with the poor and the lame -- at least, his conversations with the Pharisees use much more ink in the Bible. Why? Why did he spend time with them? Why did he pray with them, witness to them? Why did he forgive them from the Cross?

As Catholics, we should think hard about how we approach those who come from other worlds, who speak another language. God has placed this president in our lives for a reason. He exists and leads us for our good, to lead us to Christian maturity (as Sharon so beautifully points out). We should spend some time thinking about what is best for him, how we might help him "to be a good president and make good decisions."

Cross posted at Come to See.


Dcn Scott Dodge said...

I have to laugh about the Univ. of Chicago anecdote as both the dean and the prof. seem to miss the connection between the two expressions. Thank you for your very thoughtful perspective.

Chris said...

I think it goes a bit far to characterize this as “a drive to reject a man”. I do not think, in the main, that it is intended in this spirit.

There may well be a Christian duty to hope that Obama is a good leader, that he will make decisions in the common interest, that his soul is not in jeopardy, etc. There may well be an obligation on the faithful to spend time with him (whatever that means in this context), to respect his humanity, to pray with and for him, to witness to him, to forgive him. What I can’t understand is why any of these things is necessarily incompatible with thinking that it would serve the good of all if Obama did not deliver the prized commencement address and receive an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Notre Dame at this time. (I find no real analogy to that in Christ’s various dealings with the Pharisees.) You seem to be implying that the university’s critics in this matter have hardened their hearts. Yet may it not be that declining to bestow these honors is the more charitable act of witness for the university to bear to our president?

Fred said...

straining at gnats. This culture war is a totally inadequate reaction to the problem of education.

Suzanne said...

I'm grateful to Scott for pointing out that there were comments on CP as well! Since they don't arrive in my inbox, I have to go looking for them (and now you see how befuddled I am!).

I, too, love Fred's response.

Chris, your thoughts are along the same lines as Sara's (on Come to See). I am glad that the way I wrote about the obligation to spend time with Obama came across as ambiguous. It is a principle rather than a directive -- we look for the opportunity and then we seize it, whatever form it takes. But as you would like to know what it means "in this context," I think it's pretty clear that if he goes to Notre Dame, he spends time with amazing and beautiful Christians. It seems that Mary Ann Glendon and yes, even Fr. Jenkins are two opportunities that would be lost. Now that he has been invited, to tell him he is no longer welcome would certainly constitute a rejection. Have you ever been invited somewhere and then later told that you may not come? It is never charitable. It's just plain rude. Maybe your point is that he never should have been invited in the first place? I even (with respect) disagree with that opinion, for reasons outlined below.

Here is what I wrote to Sara:

"Sara, I hope you understand that what I'm about to say is not said in a spirit of argument. It's just that I recently found out that it is a tradition at Notre Dame to invite the president to speak at graduation and to receive an honorary degree. In this case, there aren't any other worthy candidates for this opportunity and honor. Just one president. I'm also not convinced that adults in their early twenties are so easily influenced. Even when they enter college they are fairly set in their opinions and even if Obama had been invited to teach a class, I think he would have very little effect on the students' views on abortion. The honorary degree is not such a big deal. Really. Especially beside the Laetare medal. I think the question that gets lost in all the emotion is: how are people converted from particular views on abortion? I personally don't think all the legal wrangling helps. I think it actually makes it harder for misguided people to see the truth. We may win battles this way but never the war."

I am curious to know your thoughts on these points, Chris.