In Father Raymond de Souza’s excellent piece on abortion politics in Notre Dame, he points out (in an “aside”) that past Notre Dame president Father Theodore Hesburgh was renowned for his civil rights commitment.

Father Hesburgh “would never have given Notre Dame’s platform to anyone arguing that it was possible to be Catholic and pro-segregation,” writes Father de Souza. “That he did so on abortion compromised Notre Dame’s pro-life witness for 25 years, leading to the point where [Mary Ann] Glendon cannot in good conscience attend Notre Dame’s commencement.”

There would be no talk of academic freedom justifying an award for the work of a segregationist politician. The school would see such an act as a betrayal of the school’s Catholicity. If the politician were popular and powerful, it would also look like a hypocritical act meant to curry favor at the expense of an important principle.

Father de Souza’s “aside” helps clarify what question is at the heart of Notre Dame’s crisis of identity. The question isn’t “What is academic freedom?” The question raised by Notre Dame’s actions is “What is hypocrisy?”

Not every form of hypocrisy is so bad. Sometimes, what we call hypocrisy is merely moral failing.

Hypocrisy sometimes is simply the last remnants of the sense of sin. When we are hypocritical because we’re ashamed of our unrepented sin, then there is more than just duplicity at work: Conscience is asserting itself. We may have an unhealthy sense of sin, but we have a sense of sin nonetheless.

But hypocrisy becomes something very dangerous when the hypocrite doesn’t simply act against the principles he professes, but twists his principles in order to pretend his sin is something besides sin.

We can excuse the smoker who tells his son not to smoke; we can’t excuse the smoker who tries to convince his son that it somehow doesn’t count as smoking when Dad does it.

This is where Notre Dame went wrong.

The U.S. bishops’ guidelines in “Catholics in Political Life” say: “Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms that would suggest support for their actions.”

Notre Dame’s first fault came when it violated those guidelines by inviting President Obama to be the commencement speaker. Obama has pledged himself to a radical pro-abortion agenda, and he has already advanced it several ways in office.

The second problem was that the school promised to give him an honorary law degree, making the violation even worse.

Dozens of bishops began to complain about that violation by the nation’s “flagship Catholic university.” Notre Dame could have gained a lot of goodwill by apologizing and withdrawing at least the honorary degree if they couldn’t bring themselves to disinvite a sitting president, even one whose actions disregard the right to life.

But Notre Dame didn’t do that.

Father John Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president, instead began to argue that the bishops’ guidelines don’t really apply to what he did.

The university distributed talking points to allies, including these:

n “We are aware of the discussion surrounding the bishops’ document ‘Catholics in Political Life.’ The university took this document into full consideration. We believe it allows those non-Catholics to be invited to give their views on important issues.”

n “President Obama won’t be doing all the talking. Mary Ann Glendon, the former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, will be speaking as the recipient of the Laetare Medal.”

n “We think having the president come to Notre Dame, see our graduates, meet our leaders, and hear a talk from Mary Ann Glendon is a good thing for the president and for the causes we care about.”

The first point raised the ire of Notre Dame’s local bishop, Bishop D’Arcy; the next two affronted Mary Ann Glendon.

In a letter to Father Jenkins, Bishop D’Arcy says the meaning of the bishops’ guidelines “is clear.” No one, Catholic or not, who violates basic Catholic moral principles should be honored by Catholic institutions. He requests that Father Jenkins publicly acknowledge that Notre Dame was wrong to assert publicly that “Catholics in Public Life” does not prohibit the granting of honors to a non-Catholic, pro-abortion politician like Barack Obama.

Mary Ann Glendon saw that she was being used as cover for Notre Dame’s violation of bishops’ guidelines. She decided she didn’t want to be so used.

A commencement, she told Notre Dame, “is supposed to be a joyous day for the graduates and their families. It is not the right place, nor is a brief acceptance speech the right vehicle, for engagement with the very serious problems raised by Notre Dame’s decision — in disregard of the settled position of the U.S. bishops — to honor a prominent and uncompromising opponent of the Church’s position on issues involving fundamental principles of justice.”

Pope Benedict XVI told Father Jenkins and other university presidents last year: “I wish to reaffirm the great value of academic freedom. In virtue of this freedom, you are called to search for the truth wherever careful analysis of the evidence leads you.”

He added: “Yet it is also the case that any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and teaching of the Church would obstruct or even betray the university’s identity and mission.”

How are those two statements consistent? True academic freedom at a Catholic university isn’t the freedom for theologians to teach that the Church is wrong. It’s the freedom for students to ask questions, relentlessly, in a context where wise scholars know that the Church has the answers.

If that freedom is taken away, the school is like any secular university, only with a fault those other schools don’t have: hypocrisy.