Not Intimidated, But Intimidating?

Jack Smith at the Catholic Key blog linked to Archbishop O’Brien’s take on the Notre Dame affair. There’s nothing like keeping a dead dog reanimated, I guess. The archbishop is right in assessing that this invitation won’t be rescinded at this point. Talking as if it were, is a waste of time. And worse, it deepens the sense of outrage and anger among conservative Catholics and harms both the unity of the Church and any attempt to turn hearts away from abortion.

While I’m hardly in the camp of just wishing the bishops would just shut up, I do think more care could be taken on what is said and written. A careless question:

Was it a fear of being “too Catholic” and a hankering to be “mainstream America” that prompted the University of Notre Dame’s invitation to our President not only to give this year’s Commencement address but also be awarded an honorary doctorate from the University?

Going back to the founding of the Maryland colony is overthinking the matter. ND invited the president, just like it invited the past several presidents. It offered an honorary degree because it comes, mindlessly maybe, with the territory. Maybe a few people at ND thought it would be thumbing noses at conservative believers, who seem to have their own standard of orthodoxy. I can’t deny a guilty pleasure at seeing busybodies frustrated.

A person comes to my house for dinner, and I will offer them a drink even if they aren’t thirsty. It’s a matter of being polite. For the record, I don’t mind if good manners of this sort are reconsidered not just at Notre Dame, but elsewhere in academia. But, then again, it’s easy for me to say that since I don’t anticipate ever getting an honorary degree. Heck, I’d be happy to be invited somewhere where I can wear my Master’s degree hood. Never done that before.

Toward the end of his piece, he wrote:

Whatever the rationale, it cannot undo the confusion it has caused among Catholics who rightly look to their bishops and to the leaders of major Catholic institutions for moral guidance and for a consistent application of Church teaching. Hopefully, when it’s all over, the administration of Notre Dame will reassess that decision, be willing to bear the traditional and inevitable burden of being solidly Catholic and fully return to the Catholic fold.

The archbishop is misfiring on about four points here.

First, many and probably most of the Catholics who are most upset already had a low opinion of Notre Dame and non-orthodox, non-conservative Catholicism. This invitation confirmed rather than truly scandalized their view of the university. Catholicism, for many of them, has evolved into a personal set of standards, a certain conservative relativism if you will. When a bishop, like Archbishop Wuerl for example, refuses to toe the theocon line (of disinviting unrepentant Catholic politicians from receiving Communion, for example) they will be criticized with rigor and vigor. So if the point is about intimidation, I’d say many lay Catholics know more about delivery.

Second, there is a greater issue with the erosion of authority. There is a general perception of unfairness about many authority figures over the past several decades. Politics, celebrities, religion: pretty much nobody is off limits. To think that if university presidents suddenly behaved themselves, it would be solved: this is naivete.

Third, I would question whether the difference between the bishops and Notre Dame is really an issue of applying morality and church teaching. It boils down to politics, in the sense of how decisions get made. 98% of the time, a bishop doesn’t want to be bothered with the commencement speaker. It’s only an issue when it causes him problems. But no self-respecting adult wants to be cast as a sycophant and run to the bishop to avoid every possible controversy.

Fourth, we have the notion that Notre Dame is somehow less Catholic because eighty-some bishops have criticized a particular action. Is this action sinful? Does that mean sinful believers inhabit a place somehow outside of the “fold?” I don’t think what the archbishop is communicating here reflects a traditional view of communion. While sin alienates the individual from God, and there is a social aspect of alienation from one’s family, friends, and other believers, my take is that this last shot, “the traditional and inevitable burden of being solidly Catholic and fully return to the Catholic fold,” might easily apply to any sinner involved in this ruckus. Is Archbishop O’Brien implying he and his brother bishops are not fully in the Catholic fold when they have been confronted with their own erosion of authority?

I repeat my earlier assessment that ND has bungled the handling of this speaker and honorary degree recipient. I think the bishops have erred in allowing relationships with Catholic universities to deteriorate. If the buck stops with them, as some seem to think, they share at least 50% of the discredit on the current environment. A prince can afford to have the attitude of being serviced. Being a shepherd requires hard work and effort.

The furor over Notre Dame has focused the public voice of the Church far, far away from the day-to-day issue of troubled women considering ending their pregnancies. I think we need to get back to it. While I have no problem with upholding any bishop or believer’s right to speak out as they see fit, I can’t say I see any upside to this discussion, other than an attempt to refocus it where it might do more good.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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4 Responses to Not Intimidated, But Intimidating?

  1. JC says:

    [shakes head]
    What about McBrien? Do you think McBrien should be allowed to function as a Catholic priest and to teach his heretical ideas to university students?
    Notre Dame is on New Ways Minsitry’s index of gay-friendly “Catholic” universities.

    Do you care at all for salvation of souls or just for pushing *your* political agenda?

    Because souls will be going to Hell due to the heresies that Notre Dame and Georgetown and their ilk have been teaching for decades, not the least of which will be the souls of many of the professors and administrators themselves.

    That is what this is ultimately all about.

  2. Todd says:

    JC, as you’ve heard me preach before, heresy is a serious charge. It’s more serious than, “I disagree.”

    Fr McBrien is a priest in good standing, and he has never been “convicted” in any ecclesiastical way of heresy. If your premise and suggested resolution is to be taken seriously, you’re going to have to bring more to the table than “I disagree with McBrien.”

    ND may well be “gay-friendly.” What does that mean?

    In order for someone to go to hell, there has to be an informed, explicit, and initiated act of separation from God. Again, where is the evidence?

    Your post underscores my first point of disagreement with Archbishop O’Brien: this is, in large part, a manufactured crisis generated by those who already have a bone to pick with ND. There is no confusion about it.

  3. Rebecca says:

    Thank you for a thoughtful view on this. I agree with much of it, in particular that the vast majority of those Catholics who are expressing such dismay were not happy with Notre Dame to begin with.

    As for ‘heresy’, it amazes me that in an institution that has so clearly defined ‘heresy’ some still use it to mean “I don’t like that viewpoint.”

  4. Jimmy Mac says:

    “A bishop never more resembles Jesus Christ than when he has his mouth shut.”

    Attributed to St. Ignatius of Antioch.

    “Authority has simply been abused too long in the Catholic Church, and for many people it just becomes utterly stupid and intolerable to have to put up with the kind of jackassing around that is imposed in God’s name. It is an insult to God himself and in the end it can only discredit all idea of authority and obedience. There comes a point where they simply forfeit the right to be listened to.”

    Thomas Merton in a letter to W. H. Ferry dated 1-19-67, as quoted in a letter to the Editor in 10/2/98 NCR.

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