September 11, 2009


Bishop D’Arcy offers reflection on Notre Dame controversy

Every Catholic in Indiana—and perhaps in the United States—should read Bishop John M. D’Arcy’s pastoral reflection on the controversy that erupted earlier this year when the University of Notre Dame announced that President Barack Obama would be its commencement speaker and receive an honorary doctorate.

Bishop D’Arcy’s reflections, “The Church and the University: A Pastoral Reflection on the Controversy at Notre Dame,” were published in the Aug. 31-Sept. 7 issue of America, a magazine published weekly by Jesuits of the United States. It is also available on the Web site of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend (

Bishop D’Arcy writes that his purpose is to “clarify the situation that so sundered the Church last spring: What it is all about and what it is not about.”

It is not about President Obama, he says. Or about Democrats versus Republicans (a replay of the recent presidential election). Or about America’s editorial opinion that the controversy was an inappropriate expression of “sectarian Catholicism” (the Church interfering in politics).

Bishop D’Arcy even says that “the situation that so sundered the Church last spring” is not about the appropriateness of the U.S. president speaking at a Catholic university. “This is what universities do,” the bishop says. “No bishop should try to prevent that.”

So what is the Notre Dame controversy all about? Bishop D’Arcy believes it is about the responsibility that all Catholic universities have “to give witness to the Catholic faith and to the consequences of that faith by its actions and decisions—especially by a decision to confer its highest honor.”

This is the heart of the controversy: the responsibility that Catholic universities have to witness publicly to Gospel values. In this context, Bishop D’Arcy asks, “How can a Catholic institution expect its students to live by faith in the difficult decisions that will confront them in a culture often opposed to the Gospel?”

In his reflections, Bishop D’Arcy asks poignant questions about the relationship of a Catholic university to its bishop. About the connection between academic freedom and the search for truth and freedom that is at the core of our 2,000-year-old Catholic tradition. And about the future of Catholic education in the United States, especially in its practical relationship to what Professor John Cavadini, chair of the theology department at Notre Dame, describes, in the language of Vatican II, as “the concrete, visible communion of ‘hierarchic and charismatic gift’s,’ ‘at once holy and always in need of purification’ in which ‘each bishop represents his own Church and all of the bishops together represent the whole Church.’ ”

Bishop D’Arcy also talks about his personal relationship with the University of Notre Dame during the past 24 years of his service as bishop of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. It is clear that he loves this university, especially its students, and that he treasures his unique role as the chief teacher and pastor in his diocese.

But he also takes seriously his responsibility “to encourage all institutions, including our beloved University of Notre Dame, to give public witness to the fullness of the Catholic faith,” and to resist the temptation to place prestige over truth.

“The bishop must be concerned that Catholic institutions do not succumb to the secular culture,” he writes, “making decisions that appear to many, including ordinary Catholics, as a surrender to a culture opposed to the truth about life and love.”

In his reflections, Bishop D’Arcy explains his decision to pray with students, faculty and others who came to campus on commencement day to protest the university’s actions. He also criticizes the university’s president, Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, for his failure to consult with him as local bishop.

And he is especially critical of “the silent board” [of trustees] who did not address the controversy during their regularly scheduled spring meeting.

“The responsibility of university boards is great,” Bishop D’Arcy writes. “Like bishops, they are asked to leave politics and ambition at the door, and make serious decisions before God.”

Faithful Catholics who care about the Church and about Catholic higher education can, and do, disagree with Bishop D’Arcy about the appropriateness of Notre Dame’s decision to award President Obama its highest honor.

But there is no question that this action, and the controversy it caused, raises serious questions about the practical implications of the Church’s requirement that “in your life as a university and in your actions, including your public awards, [a Catholic university] should give witness to the Catholic faith in all its fullness.”

Let’s pray for our bishops and for all Catholic universities in the United States, including our beloved Notre Dame, that these important questions will be resolved in ways that are enlightened by the Holy Spirit in all truth and charity.

—Daniel Conway

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