Frown and Gown

Peter Nixon and the commentariat at dotCommonweal open up the argument there, channeling Archbishop Wuerl, that we need to look at Ex Corde Ecclesiae, and perhaps not so much “Catholics In Political Life.” And there may be valid sentiment for ditching both documents (the latter doesn’t apply specifically to universities anyway) and sitting down for that serious, but unlikely (Peggy Steinfels) chat between universities and their bishops.

Catholic bishops in the US, particularly the ones at the fringes, are happy to state “The USCCB does not speak for me,” when it suits them. But give them a petition opportunity, and it’s BYOB*. It would be interesting to know how many US bishops publicly stated in 2004 that CPL had their endorsement and the force of law in their diocese. Anyone? It seems the seventy signatories have no problem lining up behind a now-convenient USCCB pamphlet and endorsing, “It may be ghostwritten, but it’s mine, all mine!”

I don’t mind stating that ND and Fr Jenkins have been wimpy in their public statements on Commencement ’09. If they really believed they were on firm ground, I wouldn’t have minded seeing a swipe or two at their Laetare winner for the hand-wringing on stage-sharing. Universities tend to last longer (and in the current careerism climate, much longer) that their ordinaries. It would seem that bishops have it in their best interests to hoof it over to the institutions of higher learning in their dioceses and learn the landscape.

Part of the landscape is the subculture of higher learning. Living in a university community, I can tell you there’s a lot different and distinctive about it. On the parish side, the lay people are sharp, involved, and not at all afraid of telling you what needs to happen and how it should get done. As an ecclesial minister, my role is not to establish my own cred by fiat, but to assess the subtleties of the pastoral situation and work with others to determine what needs to happen, what things are likely to happen, and move slowly for the benefit of everyone.

In the culture of the town, I’ll mention one theme in conversations I’ve had with other school parents. This is a tough place to teach. Lots of highly educated and forthright university employees watch how their kids are taught. A teacher not up to standards can get sniffed out. The resulting confrontation isn’t always pretty. My experience as an undergrad at a demanding university wasn’t far from this league. I can imagine it’s not much different at ND: the strong and the self-assured survive. The losers–and they are branded as such–escape to community college with tail between their legs.

College presidents are near the top of this heap in most places. They are not likely to bend to a bishop’s arbitrary wishes. And if a bishop chooses to trot out an “optional” national document after-the-fact, don’t be surprised if there’s a lot of clucking about it, some of it public.

It’s against this backdrop the whole ND episode must be considered. The starting point is not the bishop orders, the people follow. Archbishop Wuerl:

What makes the valid request of the bishops in the 2004 document all the more significant today is the context. There is a current in our society today that suggests that the bishops are just one among many voices offering legitimate direction and guidance to Catholics and the wider community in the name of the Church.

The archbishop and his brothers have to see the context not only from their own viewpoint, but from that of the university and the laity. I don’t know that the bishops themselves haven’t been partly responsible for paddling this current our way. When convenient, the bishops are all too willing to concede guidance to lawyers, insurance companies, and old-school psychologists. For all his other faults, Rembert Weakland is willing to admit “I screwed up,” when confronted about harboring sex offender clergy. To my knowledge, no bishop has been willing to come out to sex abuse victims and say, “Screw the lawyers and finances. I offer my unconditional apology and I pledge to make amends. What will it take to reconcile?” Bishops will need to do this. They might think they will lose big-time. But lay people are willing to receive (eventually) their good examnple, their sacrifice, and their demonstration of how it should be done.

The archbishop is right that lay Catholics see legitimate alternatives to the bishops. And it may well be that through the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Church is provided with clean, pure waters of refreshment. Problem is that when this water isn’t offered, some people will drink anything, including Republican kool-aid.

The very nature of a Catholic institution, which is part of a larger community of faith, makes it incumbent upon that institution to work out of a lived and concrete communion with its diocesan bishop whose task is to oversee all ministry in the local Church.

Do Catholic institutions–and I’m speaking generalities here–see themselves as part of a larger community? This is where I think some hospitals, schools, and others stumble. Looking back to my last parish, within our boundaries we had one small university, a hospital, and an 0rder-run Catholic high school. It was refreshing to have collaboration with the learning institutions. The hospital, not so much was gong on there, outside of clergy servicing. I met the university president. I worked with the campus ministers at the two schools, and with staff and students involved in the arts. It was a nascent collaboration on two fronts, and it still shows lots of promise. It goes far beyond hosting a graduation liturgy, or loaning liturgical supplies, or bringing Communion on a rotating basis.

This is where I believe bishops can and should show leadership: encouraging these institutions to widen and deepen their connections. This means not only the office of the bishop, but with the laity, parishes, and organizations of the nearby Church. If the bishops keep trumpeting that it’s all about them, their office, their authority, why wouldn’t educated Catholics see through the words and conclude it’s all about episcopal narcissism? Bishops may well be the cornerstone of pastoral authority in a diocese, but you need more than a cube of rock to make a proper edifice. Without the bricks, mortar, frame, roof, and inhabitants, a cornerstone on its own looks just like a tomb.

Archbishop Wuerl has it right here: the bishop has a serious task before him. It will mean diplomatic, pastoral, draining, and demanding work on his part. If he wants to be taken seriously.

When an institution of higher learning or any Catholic institution – for example, health care, social service or Catholic Charities – chooses to disregard a legitimate instruction, it weakens the Church’s practical communion and fails to recognize the authentic role of the leaders of the Church.

The Church’s “practical communion” is also weakened by lazy bishops who channel a sense of entitlement through their office. Under JPII, the curia eviscerated the strength of bishops’ conferences. It’s cute how “optional” documents suddenly have the force of legitimacy when convenient. If you read Rome right, every bishop is now responsible for his own set of pastoral and instructional documents. At the very least, a bishop unwilling to pen his own should have the guts to supply his endorsement upfront to the output of the conference as the documents come out the chute.

With final exams coming up this weekend, here’s how the grades stack up:

Notre Dame, C-minus. The problem is that Notre Dame has a national identity. It’s not a regional Catholic university in northern Indiana. It would be interesting to see how many people actually know it’s in Indiana. That’s not to say it’s too big to handle by the South Bend bishop, but there are larger considerations given the diversity of student body, faculty, and stature. Inviting President Obama was a no-brainer given the recent policy there. As I’ve said before, I think people in the university community have a legitimate protest, should they choose to make it. The administration has been way too wimpy in making the case for the president’s honors. When things look like a Get-D’Arcy campaign, that’s really beneath a national-level (or any) university. If they can’t make a better case more publicly, they shouldn’t have invited President Obama to begin with.

Bishop D’Arcy, C-minus. This invitation slipped under his radar. It’s easy enough to criticize him in retrospect, but his high-handedness didn’t start with this year’s commencement. If he’s the guy in charge, it’s his responsibility to put the elbow grease, as it were, into the relationship. By his own admission, he needs to take the extra step if ND is recalcitrant. I’d say his public willingness to repair the relationship and his urging of Mary Ann Glendon to attend and for protests to be seemly speak well of a desire to keep the furor tamped down.

Pro-Lifers, D-minus. This has been a PR catastrophe. I’ve been following the story on the secular blogs and news outlets. It’s barely registering. Lots of decibel levels (Have you ever stood next to a truck or a plane?) and lots of money raised for Randall Terry’s SBSB** but really: have any hearts been converted, any babies saved? By shouting long and loud, they miss the opportunity for dialogue. Heck, they didn’t even pay attention to Mary Ann Glendon when she said what commencement should be about. They just threw a party when she disinvited herself.

Mary Ann Glendon, C-minus. She may have drawn the toughest test. Bishop D’Arcy encouraged her to attend and accept her award. If the five-minute acceptance speech was too much or too little, maybe she could have tried not speaking or approaching ND for an adequate amount of time to address the graduates. I thought her public statement on the matter was weak.

The only person liable to come out of this with top marks is the president.

*Bring Your Own Ballpoint

**South Bend Spring Break

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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5 Responses to Frown and Gown

  1. Cautious Man says:

    I would disagree with your grades to the University, and to the Bishop. IN 2004, the commencement speaker was Alan Page, former ND football and pro star, who now is a justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court. He was one of the justices who voted, in a controversial case in Minnesota, that the state constitution required public funding for abortions, for poor women.

    This was years before he was the commencement speaker, and it’s an issue that has come up in his re-election campaigns in Minnesota (the Supreme Court is elected there).

    I have not found any peep from Bishop D’Arcy about this. To the contrary, since one of his recent statements is to the effect that this is the first commencement he is not attending, one must assume that he attended when Justice Page was honored.

    If other past ND speakers were examined for their abortion views, they also could have been the subject of the Bisho’s ire and boycott.

    So, the University’s grade could be higher. And the Bishop’s grade should be lower, based upon his inconsistent approach on these issues. I know that football is close to religion out there, but nevertheless these circumstances make the Bishop’s position look more political than clerical.

    And I say this, not as an ND grad, but as a graduate of a large Jesuit University in the northeast. ;-)

  2. ron chandonia says:

    (Sorry, I originally posted this in the wrong thread.)

    I’m glad you like the President. That was the point, after all. The Obama Democrats are not interesting in simply swinging the pendulum of public opinion back in the direction of support for abortion choice. Instead, they want to redefine the very term “pro-life” itself to mean support for their preferred array of social support programs–as well as, for those who prefer, tax-funded terminations of pregnancy. The Notre Dame appearance was always intended to add a Catholic kiss to that particular cupcake. Clearly it has received yours.

  3. Todd says:

    Thanks for visiting and posting, Ron. I took the liberty of deleting the post on the other thread, since you’ve put up a replacement here.

    I’m not so sure you have cause for gladness. My regular readers know I have a distrust for major party politics and a cynicism about the American political process. I do like politics, but the best of it is local. That’s where I feel the joy.

    That said, while I’m sure there are opportunities to be mined by this episode, there are also losses to be borne. I find myself less puckered for the sake of the president and more dismayed that the pro-life effort comes away with largely an empty plate from this buffet table.

    Go Lila Rose! Go seamless garment! Boo bishops. Boo GOP.

  4. Michael says:

    For all his other faults, Rembert Weakland is willing to admit “I screwed up,” when confronted about harboring sex offender clergy. To my knowledge, no bishop has been willing to come out to sex abuse victims and say, “Screw the lawyers and finances. I offer my unconditional apology and I pledge to make amends. What will it take to reconcile?” Bishops will need to do this.

    Exactly right. The bishops gave away any moral standing they had with their behavior in the sex abuse cases, and they won’t begin get it back until they do as you suggest. Even then it will take years.

  5. Bill Kurtz says:

    Re Michael’s comment: It wasn’t just the bishops who lost moral standing. I, for one, find it impossible to take Mary Ann Glendon seriously as a moral arbiter, because she was a bitter-end, last-ditch defender of Cardinal Law.

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