When Bishop John D'Arcy of South Bend, Ind., publicly and decisively declared he would boycott Notre Dame's graduation last May because President Obama was the commencement speaker, he touched off the proverbial firestorm -- and one that actually lives up to the cliche since the debate is continuing, fueled again this week by a fresh rejoinder from D'Arcy.
At the time of the invitation in March, more than one-quarter of the nation's active Catholic bishops joined D'Arcy in declaring that Notre Dame -- the icon of American Catholic faith and success -- had sold her birthright for a mess of pottage by inviting a president who Catholic conservatives deemed "the most pro-abortion" president in history. (And that was among the gentler jibes. Bishop Thomas G. Doran of Rockford, Ill., called the invitation "truly obscene" and suggested renaming the school "Northwestern Indiana Humanist University." )
Pro-life groups found PR gold in the furor, with some leaders marching on campus to get arrested and others flying a plane over campus trailing a banner with pictures of aborted fetuses every day. Some alums vowed to withhold donations and conservatives generally saw it as a make-or-break moment for Catholicism in America.
But most Catholics didn't see it that way. In fact they supported Notre Dame's decision. Obama received a thunderous welcome at commencement and delivered a stirring speech
widely recognized as one of his best; it also served to undercut the very "pro-abortion" label the protesters were advertising.
The Jesuit weekly America
, which has in the past come under pressure from bishops and the pope for allowing contrasting viewpoints on controversial topics, wrote a powerful editorial
decrying the protests as a form of "sectarian Catholicism" that put politics above faith and was unworthy of the church's traditions, or even Vatican practices.
Now Bishop D'Arcy has responded in America with an article defending his decision
to boycott -- and stating that while he initially thought there would be "no winners" in the dispute, "I was wrong."
In fact, he says, he and the several thousand students and protesters who held a counter-rally during commencement were the real winners, "for they were on the side of truth, and their demonstration was disciplined, rooted in prayer and substantive. I told the pro-life rally . . . that they were the true heroes. Despite the personal costs to themselves and their families, they chose to give public witness to the Catholic faith contrary to the example of a powerful, international university, against which they were respectfully but firmly in disagreement."
D'Arcy also blasts the university's board as "lacking seriousness" and questions its Catholic spirit and the entire university's commitment to the church and the truth -- and its deference to the local bishop, who is D'Arcy. D'Arcy also cites his disgust at the popular "Vagina Monologues" ("a sad and immoral play") that ND President, Father John Jenkins, has allowed to be held on campus in recent years -- citing that as another way the university has betrayed its roots.
Oddly, D'Arcy begins by saying what the controversy was not about:
It is not about President Obama. He will do some good things as president and other things with which, as Catholics, we will strongly disagree. It is ever so among presidents, and most political leaders.
It is not about Democrats versus Republicans, nor was it a replay of the recent general election.
It is not about whether it is appropriate for the president of the United States to speak at Notre Dame or any great Catholic university on the pressing issues of the day. This is what universities do. No bishop should try to prevent that.
Yet then he goes on to say it was about those things because Obama was unfit to be honored at Notre Dame and Notre Dame was wrong to have him speak there and he, the bishop, was right to try to prevent that.
Clearly the crisis has not subsided, despite the fact that many bishops were embarrassed by the outrage of their fellow prelates or saw it as counterproductive and hoped it would move on. (And despite the fact that Notre Dame just concluded its most successful fundraising campaign.)
On the other hand, there is an argument for burrowing into the issues raised by the Notre Dame controversy, and interestingly, they are also set out in the latest issue of America
by the retired archbishop of San Francisco, John R. Quinn. Quinn was one of the few churchmen who spoke out against the increasingly outrageous denunciations of Notre Dame and Father Jenkins and Obama. (The Notre Dame affair is to conservative Catholics what "death panels" are to Palinistas. )
In this essay, "The Public Duty of Bishops,"
Quinn reprises and elaborates his arguments. He states at the outset his disagreement with Obama on abortion, and says that issue is a priority for the church. But Quinn -- who is regarded as one of the most thoughtful and engaged of a generation of bishops now moving off the scene -- also says the Notre Dame crisis sends four problematic messages: That the bishops are partisan actors (on behalf of the GOP); that they approve a "culture war mentality" inside and outside the church; that the bishops only care about abortion to the exclusion of other evils; and that the bishops "are insensitive to the heritage and the continuing existence of racism in America.
" (Quinn's italics.)
He concludes with a pointed excerpt from the decree on bishops, Christus Dominus
(No. 13) from the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s:
The Church has to be on speaking terms with the human society in which it lives. It is therefore the duty of bishops especially to make an approach to people, seeking and promoting dialog with them. If truth is constantly to be accompanied by charity and understanding by love, in such salutary discussions they should present their positions in clear language, unagressively and diplomatically. Likewise they should show prudence combined with confidence, for this is what brings about union of minds by encouraging friendship.