Ten days before the May 17 Notre Dame University commencement at which President Barack Obama was to speak and receive an honorary degree, I told an archbishop who's a friend that I thought this was a watershed. One reason for that, I explained, lay in the remarkably large number of individual bishops — approaching 80 as this is written — who took the initiative to speak up in protest against Notre Dame's bestowal of honors upon our aggressively pro-abortion chief executive.
The archbishop smiled sadly and shook his head. "Six months from now it will all be forgotten, and everything will be business as usual," he said. It was clear that by "business as usual" he wasn't suggesting that the state of American Catholicism had been all that good before the Notre Dame-Obama flap.
Maybe he's right, although for once I hope he isn't. Obama's feel-good remarks at the Notre Dame graduation changed nothing of substance. But I agree with White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel: You shouldn't waste a good crisis. In that spirit, here are three important lessons that can — and must — be learned from this extremely painful episode.
The first lesson, familiar by now, is that American Catholics are deeply divided. The Obama invitation was yet another occasion for two very different groups of Catholics to split over something serious.
The poll numbers were somewhat contradictory, but the overall picture is clear. Generally speaking, Catholics who go to Mass weekly tended to think that Notre Dame was badly off base in paying tribute to our pro-abortion president, while Catholics who don't go to Mass weekly tended to see it as okay. We've been seeing this split in Catholic ranks—those who go to Mass weekly vs. those who don't—for many years and on many different issues, both political and religious.
I have no solution to offer, except that the split must henceforth be taken far more seriously into account than it has been up to now in pastoral planning and action. It's just not meaningful to say, "American Catholics think this or that." The question is: Which Catholics do you mean—the ones who practice their religion or the ones who don't?
The second lesson is that Catholic colleges and universities face a choice. A couple of weeks before the Notre Dame event, I was discussing that with a notably well-informed Catholic editor. The bottom line, we agreed, is that these days many Catholic schools — Notre Dame being a prime example — claim Catholic identity without practicing accountability to the Church.
It doesn't work. Identity and accountability — it's a case of both or neither. Notre Dame, Georgetown, Boston College and the rest have to choose.
The third lesson is that the bishops also face a choice. Will they fight to uphold the Catholic identity of Catholic institutions or let them go without protest? Many already are gone, and more currently are being forced into secularization — or extinction — by economic factors and/or ideology.
Where Catholic identity remains a viable option, however, the bishops still have a little time to exert themselves in its defense. Otherwise they'd best resign themselves to its all-but-universal loss. Merely hoping for the best won't work.
If these lessons are learned, the Notre Dame controversy may do some good. But if my friend the archbishop is right in predicting business as usual within six months, the future of Catholic identity in higher education and other areas of the Church's infrastructure isn't bright. How very sad if it turns out like that.