Friday, March 5, 2010

A funny thing happened the other day at the nation’s flagship Catholic university, Notre Dame. In the midst of a con-

troversy over the university’s policies regarding homosexuals, the authorized student newspaper, the Observer, refused to print a description of the Catholic Church’s teaching on homosexuality by a regular columnist, Charles E. Rice, professor emeritus of the law school. The editor didn’t question what Mr. Rice wrote. He just thought the column wouldn’t contribute to a “productive discussion.”

What’s going on here? Just a howler by some neophyte journalists?

Well, no. Why hasn’t the administration told the students not to suppress church teaching? Why did the students think they could? The incident says something about secular forces at Catholic universities and the Catholic identity of Notre Dame.

Catholic institutions face a challenge over the issue of homosexuality. To be truly Catholic, they must honor two church teachings in tension. The first is that homosexual acts are gravely sinful. The second is that being homosexual is not sinful at all. Homosexuals are to be treated with the full measure of love and justice due all others, but homosexual acts are not to be condoned even by implication.

Notre Dame tries hard to prevent discrimination. It pledges to welcome homosexuals; it forbids harassment; and it supports homosexuals in many ways. If there is fault from a Catholic perspective, it is that the teaching respecting the sinfulness of homosexual acts is muted.

However, in contrast to many other Catholic institutions, Notre Dame has refused to recognize a homosexual-centered student club or to include sexual orientation in its anti-discrimination provision. The former would suggest approval of a likely, if unstated, student aim of legitimating homosexual sex, and the latter would invite litigation because, for many, the church’s condemnation of homosexual sex implies bias against homosexuals.

A recent crude cartoon in the student newspaper has triggered a student campaign for scrapping these university policies. The paper apologized, promptly supported the campaign and now closes its pages to Catholic teaching.

These “gay rights” issues are strategic points of entry for secular culture. The pressure on Catholic institutions to disregard Catholic doctrine in the name of toleration and “equal rights” is intense. And it seems so easy. Simply stress the love and justice branch of Catholic teaching and give lip service to the sin branch and - voila! - the place snuggles in comfortably with its secular counterparts but still has “Catholic” on the masthead.

What will Notre Dame do? It has remained steadfast until now. Its former president said in the past that to capitulate to such demands “might jeopardize our ability … to support church teaching.”

But recent events are unsettling. Last year’s award of an honorary degree to President Obama, the church’s most formidable adversary on abortion, disillusioned many. When have 83 cardinals, archbishops and bishops ever before denounced a Catholic university’s action? Then, too, Notre Dame’s Catholic reputation has been tarnished by its hosting the Queer Film Festival and the “Vagina Monologues,” both in substantial measure celebrations of homosexual sex.

Much more significantly, Catholic faculty representation has plunged. The story of the secularization of Protestant and Catholic institutions has been the story of the drift of faculty away from the founding religion. In its ambition to climb the rankings ladder, Notre Dame has regularly hired with an eye to glittering secular credentials rather than training in the Catholic intellectual tradition. Accordingly, Notre Dame no longer has the majority of committed Catholic teachers its mission statement requires.

Still, the university retains formidable Catholic strengths: a splendid, if shrunken, core of Catholic scholars together with non-Catholics committed to the school’s mission; the continued, if diminished, presence of the founding order, the Congregation of Holy Cross; an 83 percent Catholic student body; and a deeply rooted Catholic tradition not easily put down. A distinguished Notre Dame professor, Alfred J. Freddoso, has memorably written that Notre Dame is “something like a public school in a Catholic neighborhood.” But that neighborhood is important. Notre Dame is, he says, “a wonderful place in many ways” and “in some obvious sense Catholic.”

This is a critical test for Notre Dame. Another surrender to the secular zeitgeist may be one too many.

William Dempsey is president of the Notre Dame alumni group Project Sycamore, which aims at preserving the university’s Catholic tradition.

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