Benedict vs. South Bend

“To whom do I belong?” This is a fundamental “identity” question for Catholic educational institutions, according to Pope Benedict XVI. He explained this during his speech to Catholic university professors at my alma mater, The Catholic University of America, last April.

One school in South Bend, Ind., has given a disappointing answer to the question.

The University of Notre Dame has invited Barack Obama — the most pro-abortion president in U.S. history — to speak and be honored at the school’s commencement.

These words, ironically, come from Father John Jenkins, president of Notre Dame: “We have a much more challenging mission than most universities. Most universities strive simply to be excellent educational institutions by the accepted standards of the profession. We do this at Notre Dame, and we have had great success. But we also foster and celebrate a distinctive mission to be a Catholic university, inspired and guided by a great spiritual tradition.”

He’s absolutely right. Notre Dame is called to live differently, as all Christians are called to.

As Pope Benedict put it in words Father Jenkins heard in Washington last year: “Teachers and administrators, whether in universities or schools, have the duty and privilege to ensure that students receive instruction in Catholic doctrine and practice. This requires that public witness to the way of Christ, as found in the Gospel and upheld by the Church’s magisterium, shapes all aspects of an institution’s life, both inside and outside the classroom. Divergence from this vision weakens Catholic identity and, far from advancing freedom, inevitably leads to confusion, whether moral, intellectual or spiritual.”

As in the life of any Christian, the task is complicated because the road is full of temptations. And with the announcement that Notre Dame will be honoring President Barack Obama with an honorary degree and stage as their commencement speaker May 17, the school has succumbed to temptation and abdicated the unique leadership role it has as the premier Catholic institution of higher education in the United States.

Yes, it is true, as many defenders of the decision have pointed out, that Barack Obama will be one among many presidents who have spoken at Notre Dame.

“Presidents from both parties have come to Notre Dame for decades to speak to graduates about our nation and our world,” said Father Jenkins. “They’ve given important addresses on international affairs, human rights, service, and we’re delighted that President Obama is continuing that tradition.”

But that explanation suggests he didn’t read his own words on his own website. It’s as if he forgot about that “distinctive mission.” It’s precisely because it is routine for Notre Dame to invite presidents to speak that not inviting Obama would have sent a powerful message.

Father Jenkins is certainly right to say, “You cannot change the world if you shun the people you want to persuade, and if you cannot persuade them … show respect for them and listen to them.”

But Notre Dame has credibility enough in the world to be respected while refusing to provide cover for Obama’s taxpayer-funded life-destroying policies on stem cells and abortion. It’s as if Father Jenkins doesn’t appreciate the power of Notre Dame.

Within hours of the announcement that Obama would speak at Notre Dame, the Cardinal Newman Society launched an online petition that calls the decision to “bestow such an honor on President Obama given his clear support for policies and laws that directly contradict fundamental Catholic teachings on life and marriage” an “outrage.”

It’s a scandal, in fact, according to the nation’s bishops.

Their 2004 “Catholics in Political Life” directs: “The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.”

Many angry alumni, Catholics, and concerned pro-lifers are calling for Notre Dame to take back the invitation. In reaction to the criticism, Father Jenkins has said, “We have invited the president, and he has honored us by accepting.”

A university spokesman has said, “I don’t foresee a circumstance in which we would rescind the invitation.”

In announcing that he will not attend the commencement May 17, Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., Bishop John D’Arcy instructed that “as a Catholic university, Notre Dame must ask itself if by this decision it has chosen prestige over truth.”

When the speaker of the House insisted on meeting with the Pope during her recent jaunt to Italy, he made use of the visit to remind her of her obligation as a Catholic politician, which she has abdicated in her support for legal abortion and her leadership in a culture of death.

Will Father Jenkins follow the papal lead? Will voices — or wallets — that carry make an indelible, renewing mark? Pray to Our Lady that South Bend is the staging ground for a powerful teaching moment in the months to come.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is the editor of

National Review Online