Americanist Universities

Was it Oscar Wilde who remarked that life imitates art? Whoever said it, the University of Notre Dame campus is living proof that it’s so. Just look at those trees.

Last time I visited Notre Dame it was June. The weather was splendid, with that crystalline splendor that only June — no longer tremulous spring, not yet gross summer — can achieve. As I strolled on that handsome campus fairly glowing with prosperity, I made a surprising discovery: At Notre Dame, even the trees have donor plaques.

Notre Dame’s trees are life imitating art. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a school’s using its trees to raise money — it’s the same as bake sales and raffles, just more sophisticated. Yet the tree gambit expresses the special genius prevailing at Notre Dame: Only God can make a tree, but here’s a school that makes money from its shrubbery.

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This is American to the Nth degree, with that distinctive get-ahead Americanism skewered in times past by the likes of Mencken and Sinclair Lewis. As it happens, it’s also the Americanism driving Notre Dame’s invitation to President Barack Obama to deliver this year’s commencement address and receive an honorary doctorate.

“A coup,” former Newsweek religion editor Ken Woodward, a longtime Notre Dame booster, called it in the Washington Post. Yes, but a coup on behalf of what? In case you weren’t looking, Obama is the most aggressively pro-abortion president we’ve ever had.

Defenders of Notre Dame make the irrelevant point that a university ought to welcome diverse points of view. But Obama wasn’t asked just to visit and give a lecture or engage in a debate — he was invited to receive the highest honor the university has in its power to bestow. This is outrageous, but so what? Notre Dame is a big-time school in the American academic style, with lots of money and prestige. Notre Dame can do whatever it wants.

To be American is in no sense a bad thing, but to be Americanist — as Notre Dame and other quasi-Catholic schools like it have become — is problematical at best. Today’s Americanism isn’t precisely the “Americanism” that Pope Leo XIII condemned in 1899, but it’s a close cousin. As expressed by Notre Dame’s invitation to Obama, the Americanist impulse signifies wholehearted entry into the secularist mainstream.

Rev. John Jenkins, C.S.C., Notre Dame’s president,and his supporters have not been helped by the news that Arizona State University, where Obama will be commencement speaker a week before his scheduled May 17 appearance in South Bend, won’t be giving the president an honorary doctorate since his presidency is just getting started. Apparently Notre Dame couldn’t wait.

Nor is it helpful that the new Notre Dame law school dean, Nell Jessup Newton, turns out to have given $7,550 to pro-abortion candidates including Obama and John Kerry, as well as the Democratic congressional campaign committee. “A person deeply committed to the university’s mission,” Father Jenkins commented in a welcoming statement he might now wish to take back.

The best news lately for Notre Dame was the decision by the student producers of The Vagina Monologues that they won’t be staging that notorious pornographic play there this year because to do so would be “counterproductive.” How right they are. Would that their elders under the Golden Dome had as much sense.

Predictions are risky. My prediction nonetheless is that, no matter how all this turns out, the Notre Dame-Obama flap will in the future be seen as a turning-point — whether for the better or for the worse only time can tell.

Up to the moment of writing, a quarter of a million people have put their names on a petition of protest, several dozen bishops have spoken out — many in remarkably angry tones — and it is said that a cardinal has declined to accept an honorary doctorate from the university at the same time Obama gets his.

What all these people understand, but the academic bureaucrats running Notre Dame do not, is that opposition to abortion and the defense of unborn life have supplied much of the glue holding American Catholicism more or less together in the last 40 years — four decades during which the unity and the Catholic identity of American Catholicism have otherwise been severely at risk.

A lot of that has been the work of the quasi-Catholic schools like Notre Dame operating under the aegis of the 1967 Land-o’-Lakes policy statement, in which the presidents of these institutions declared their independence from the rest of the Church and their allegiance to the principles of the American secular academic establishment.

Now, in choosing to honor our pro-abortion president, Notre Dame’s message to pro-life Catholics, including the bishops of the United States, is, “Get over it. It’s time to grow up and move on just as we’ve done.”

Rather than going to the substance of the controversy, the defense of the invitation that Father Jenkins presented to his board of trustees was an embarrassing exercise in legalism. The conclusion couldn’t be clearer. Notre Dame can’t see the forest for the trees — all those donor-plaqued trees and the Americanist compromise that they and the Obama invitation so tellingly represent.


  • Russell Shaw

    Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

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