by Monsignor Owen F. Campion
Notre Dame University’s recent decision to invite President Obama to address its forthcoming Commencement Exercises and to confer upon him an honorary degree caused an outcry from many Catholics opposed to the Chief Executive’s policies regarding abortion and stem cell research.
The fury transferred in many cases to “the bishops”, assuming that either the bishop of the diocese in which Notre Dame is located could stop the whole thing, or the American bishops collectively could do something.
Actually, the bishops have spoken. Several years ago, as a group, they formally resolved that Catholic colleges and universities should not invite politicians with pro-abortion records to speak on their campuses, nor should these schools give awards or honorary degrees to such political figures.
Nevertheless, the President will not be the first such figure to be lauded by an American university with a Catholic heritage. Not that long ago, the University of San Francisco, founded by the Jesuits in 1855, honored Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, whose pro-abortion views also dismay many Catholics.
To understand the situation, it is better to characterize these schools properly. There is utterly no comparison between them and the local parochial school.
This does not ignore certain Catholic symbols, or practices, in these universities, nor the often stated references in mission statements and even in specific policies to their “Catholic character” or “mission”. Rather, it recognizes other important facts.
As the Catholic community formed in the United States in the early 1800s, Catholic missionaries arrived from Europe, founding many institutions. For example, in 1789, the Jesuits started Catholic higher education by founding Georgetown College, on the outskirts of what was to become the national capital.
In 1842, a French community of men Religious, the Congregation of Holy Cross, started the school in Northern Indiana that eventually became the University of Notre Dame du Lac, to refer to Notre Dame by its official name.
Always, these Religious congregations owned and operated the schools that they had established. Even then, however, Church law gave local bishops limited jurisdiction over what happened in these schools. Why? The Religious communities in most cases were not subject to local bishops, only to their own superiors, and finally to the Pope, a fact of longstanding Church law.
Things began to change midway in the 20th Century. Vocations to Religious congregations began to fall, just as enrollments skyrocketed.
Religious communities correctly knew that soon they would not have the personnel to teach in, and to administer, these schools, at previous levels.
Then, philosophically, at the same time, the Church expressly was emphasizing lay witness. The Second Vatican Council extensively built on Pope Pius XI’s concerted push for “Catholic Action”. Bringing people other than Religious or priests into decision-making was the ideal, something the Church clearly was advocating.
So, in the 1960s, the founding Religious communities formally transferred ownership of, and rights to control, many of these famous universities to non-Church corporations which impaneled boards, overwhelmingly peopled not by Religious but by others, not reporting to the Church, to run the schools.
Now, in almost all the major universities historically Catholic, these boards set school policies and hire, and direct, college officials, very few of whom are priests or Religious, at times not Catholics.
When push comes to shove, without any truly sovereign place in the statutes of these institutions, the Religious, the bishops, and even the Vatican, only can make their case for attention to the school’s Catholic heritage, as they see it, and then hope for the best. When controversies occur at these schools, it hardly necessarily follows that Church officials either have coalesced in, or ignored, any decision.
Protesting decisions at universities such as this action at Notre Dame by appealing to bishops, rather than to those who actually operate these schools, overlooks fact.
Monsignor Campion is Associate Publisher of Our Sunday Visitor and Editor of The Priest magazine.