Monday, April 6, 2009

A Catholic University?

I have been following the events at Notre Dame with great curiosity, and when I read what Sharon blogged (she has links to everyone else, so just read what she wrote and follow her links) on the subject, I sensed an invitation in her post. So, here I am!

Every time I began to think about the president's invitation to speak at (and to receive an honorary degree from) Notre Dame, a conversation I once overheard would run through my mind. A Catholic philosopher who was teaching at the University of Chicago was speaking to the dean of one of the colleges that is considered more orthodox and serious about its Catholic identity. The philosopher observed that he could always tell which of his students were either Catholic or Jewish from the rest of the students. The dean asked him how he could tell, and the philosopher replied, "The Catholic and Jewish students all have a sense that there are other countries in the world, that people speak other languages, that in the past there were people, people who came from cultures very different from our own, who thought great things and whose works are worthy of examination." The dean seemed bemused and then said, "Well, we know our students are Catholic because daily Mass on campus is packed with students, because they often gather together to pray the rosary, and because a majority of them major in theology, and because they engage in a multitude of pro-life activities." And that was the end of the conversation.

I think that Stephen (not my husband, but a good friend) is right that the people who now decry Notre Dame's invitation to President Obame are (more or less) the same people who have been suspicious of Notre Dame's claim to being a truly Catholic institution. It seems that this controversy provides them with a litmus test -- to judge just how "Catholic" Notre Dame is. Will Notre Dame waver under the barage of email, phone messages and letters of protest, or will she remain "Catholic in name only"?

The question about what makes a University Catholic and what makes its students Catholic seems to be the unspoken heart of the whole brouhaha. There is enormous pressure on the students to "prove" their Catholicism by protesting or even boycotting their graduation ceremony.

What troubles me is that this drive to reject a man (who is after all, our president) seems neither human nor Christian. Many of the children in my atrium pray for President Obama that he may be a good president and make good decisions. A few pray that he will stop killing babies. Both prayers indicate a commitment toward his person, toward his humanity, I think. These prayers imply a relationsionship with the man. If we want these things for him, for his ultimate good, then we must spend time with the man. Jesus spent more time with Pharisees than he did even with the poor and the lame -- at least, his conversations with the Pharisees use much more ink in the Bible. Why? Why did he spend time with them? Why did he pray with them, witness to them? Why did he forgive them from the Cross?

As Catholics, we should think hard about how we approach those who come from other worlds, who speak another language. God has placed this president in our lives for a reason. He exists and leads us for our good, to lead us to Christian maturity (as Sharon so beautifully points out). We should spend some time thinking about what is best for him, how we might help him "to be a good president and make good decisions."


Dcn Scott Dodge said...

I have to laugh about the Univ. of Chicago anecdote as both the dean and the prof. seem to miss the connection between the two expressions. Thank you for your very thoughtful perspective.

Sara said...

I agree that we shouldn't shut people out. I agree that we should pray for and support President Obama. But in this situation we're not talking about sitting down to a meal with him or engaging in an open discussion or worshiping with him. Asking him to advise and inform the graduating class and giving him an honorary degree lends credibility to his policies and decisions, many of which are the opposite of Church teaching and deeply harmful to our culture. I think the university had many other options and they could have made a far better choice.

Suzanne said...

Thank you, everyone.

Sara, I hope you understand that what I'm about to say is not said in a spirit of argument. It's just that I recently found out that it is a tradition at Notre Dame to invite the president to speak at graduation and to receive an honorary degree. In this case, there aren't any other worthy candidates for this opportunity and honor. Just one president. I'm also not convinced that adults in their early twenties are so easily influenced. Even when they enter college they are fairly set in their opinions and even if Obama had been invited to teach a class, I think he would have very little effect on the students' views on abortion. The honorary degree is not such a big deal. Really. Especially beside the Laetare medal. I think the question that gets lost in all the emotion is: how are people converted from particular views on abortion? I personally don't think all the legal wrangling helps. I think it actually makes it harder for misguided people to see the truth. We may win battles this way but never the war.

Sara said...

Hi Suzanne, of course I know you're not being argumentative. Friends/witnesses are supposed to correct each other. I didn't know about Notre Dame's tradition - that changes things a lot. Thank you for the correction!

Marie said...

I really have not followed this whole issue much at all. But it was my understanding (was I wrong?) that the primary thing at issue was a statement by the USCCB that politicians who actively support abortion rights are not to be invited to speak by Catholic universities. I thought the issue was disregard for this statement of the Bishops', even though I realize that the USCCB does not really have authority, strictly speaking, over the US as a whole.

Suzanne said...

Hey Marie,

The statement you're referring to is this: "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."

The last phrase is the most important -- the debate is over whether this invitation implies that Notre Dame (Fr. Jenkins) wishes to suggest support for Obama's abortion policies through this honor. It seems pretty clear from Fr. Jenkins' statements, that this is not the case (in fact, I don't think anyone believes that the invitation demonstrates a desire to support Obama's abortion policies). Most of the people who decry the Notre Dame decision seem to glide over the last seven words -- or they announce that inviting Obama (because he is so identified with his stand on abortion) is enough suggestion. I disagree. One could imagine a "Catholic" university honoring him because of his support for abortion. I think that this is the problem that the bishops are addressing. I am scratching my head over people who refuse to take the inherent ambiguity of the situation into account -- who refuse to acknowledge Fr. Jenkins clear pro-life position. It is with these thoughts in mind that I find the response coming out of CL to be so much more interesting than any other responses I've seen.

It is also interesting that no quick condemnation has come from the USCCB. Those who claim to be following the bishops seem to be out in front on this one.

Dumbstruck by the Mystery

...our temptation is always to impose our prejudices or our measure on reality -- except when we are faced with a fact that leaves us dumbstruck, and instead of dominating the fact ourselves, we are dominated, overcome by it. If there were no moments of this kind, the Mystery could do anything, but in the end, we would reduce everything to the usual explanation. But not even a Nobel Prize winner can stop himself from being dumbstruck before an absolutely gratuitous gesture. If there were not these moments, we would find answers, explanations, and interpretations to avoid being struck by anything. It is good that some things happen that we cannot dominate, then we have to take them seriously, and this is the great question of philosophy. If the conditions for the possibility of knowledge (see Kant) impose themselves on reality or if there is something that is so powerfully disproportionate that it does not let itself be "grasped" by the conditions of possibility, then the horizon opens. If this were not the case, then we could dominate everything and be in peace, or at least without drama. Instead, not even the intelligence of a Nobel Prize winner could prevent him from coming face-to-face with a fact that made him dumbstruck -- instead of dominating, it was he who was dominated. Here begins the drama, because I am called to answer. It is the drama that unfolds between us and the Mystery, through certain facts, certain moments, in which the Mystery imposes itself with this evidence. These are facts that we cannot put in our pocket, which we cannot reduce to antecedent factors.
-- Julian Carron in "Friends, that is, Witnesses."