Can Notre Dame Turn Back the Tide?

Interview with Cardinal Newman Society President

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry

By Genevieve Pollock

MANASSAS, Virginia, MAY 20, 2009 ( In the wake of the recent Notre Dame controversy, an opportunity arises to renew Catholic higher education in its identity and mission, says the Cardinal Newman Society president.

Patrick Reilly is the founder and president of the Cardinal Newman Society, an organization dedicated to renew and strengthen the Catholic identity at colleges and universities across the United States.

In this interview with ZENIT, he shares his perspective on the recent controversy surrounding the University of Notre Dame’s decision to honor President Barack Obama at its commencement ceremony, and explains how this issue can be a springboard for strengthening Catholic identity at colleges.

Q: Many stories have been emerging about the pro-life response to the Notre Dame commencement ceremony. What kind of response did Notre Dame see that day from students and others who came together for the pro-life cause?

Reilly: The response to the Notre Dame scandal was immense and unprecedented.

More than 367,000 Catholics signed the Cardinal Newman Society’s petition against the honor at

Bishop John D’Arcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend, the local ordinary for Notre Dame, boycotted the commencement ceremony.

Nearly 80 bishops, representing about one-third of the dioceses in the United States, spoke out against the honor, and none publicly supported it.

Mary Ann Glendon, the former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, who was to receive Notre Dame’s prestigious Laetare Medal, declined the honor rather than share the stage with America’s pro-abortion leader.

Notre Dame students organized prayer rallies, a Mass and an alternate ceremony for graduates.

I prefer to call it a Catholic response, since Americans tend to use “pro-life” as describing a political position. For the bishops and for the Cardinal Newman Society, this was not a political protest against the president, but a protest against Notre Dame’s disobedience and betrayal of Catholic values.

Certainly the concerns about honoring President Obama centered on his support for abortion rights, embryonic stem-cell research and U.S. funded family planning programs. But the outrage was directed at Notre Dame and its refusal to abide by the U.S. bishops’ 2004 policy against Catholic institutions providing honors and platforms for public opponents of Catholic moral teaching.

It was American Catholics drawing a line in the sand, after decades of harmful dissent and declining Catholic identity at leading Catholic colleges and universities. It is the political left in the United States that tried to portray the scandal in a political context, while hypocritically accusing the bishops of political motivations against the president.
Q: Do you think it met the expectations of the organizers?
Reilly: It depends how one defines success. In the end, Notre Dame ignored the bishops. President Obama was honored by a Catholic university and delivered a well-received address, despite reasserting his pro-abortion position.

That has done significant damage, not only to the pro-life movement but to Notre Dame’s integrity as a Catholic university. And it has caused many of us great anguish.

But as Christians, we have to see God’s plan in everything. We share a Eucharistic faith; it is through the betrayal of Judas and the Passion that Christ is risen, and the Church is no stranger to suffering and betrayal from within.

These skirmishes only bring the truth to light in a culture that would rather avoid it. In the context of political power and worldly prestige, the Church lost this battle, and secularist educators and the political left enjoyed a minor victory. That victory is illusory, though, in the light of faith.

I believe this may have been a graced moment that gives us an opportunity to move forward in the renewal of Catholic higher education and the pro-life cause.
The extraordinary witness of the bishops and lay Catholics has brought much needed attention to the lack of Catholic identity at many U.S. Catholic colleges and universities.

Faithful Catholics are more committed than ever to a renewal of Catholic higher education.

I predict that the Notre Dame scandal will someday be looked upon as a watershed moment in the project begun by Pope John Paul II with “Ex Corde Ecclesiae” and continued by Benedict XVI with his vision for Catholic education, presented at The Catholic University of America in April 2008.
Q: Now that the graduation day is over, has the controversy ended? Or where do you see it going now?
Reilly: Already some university leaders have indicated plans to lobby the bishops to weaken or perhaps even rescind their 2004 policy against Catholic honors for opponents of Catholic moral teaching. Other “progressive” Catholics have lashed out against the Cardinal Newman Society and against the bishops for opposing Notre Dame’s action.

So I suspect that the controversy is only growing, and the secularists in American Catholic education will continue their prolonged fight against the Church. They see no useful role for the bishops and orthodox Catholic theology in higher education. I would not at all be surprised if some of the major Jesuit universities are already clamoring for President Obama’s participation in next year’s commencement ceremonies.

But the Holy Spirit is working in the Church in America, and the Vatican and the bishops have established a clear direction for Catholic education.

I have no doubt that the future is bright, and that Catholic institutions will be increasingly attentive to their essential purpose of bringing young people to Christ.
Q: What has been the general response and attitude on other college campuses? How have other colleges been affected by this Notre Dame controversy?
Reilly: There are several outstanding, faithful institutions which we recommend to Catholic families in “The Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College” and at

Their response to the Notre Dame scandal was typically dignified: By contrast, they chose Catholic and pro-life leaders to honor at their commencement ceremonies, and their public statements helped focus attention on the great value of authentic Catholic education.

For instance, the president of Wyoming Catholic College, America’s newest Catholic college, wrote in a letter to Notre Dame, “We are committed to preserving … faithfulness above all else, for it is the key to our very existence as an institution.”
On the other hand, other college leaders have sought to vilify those who opposed Notre Dame’s action, by accusing the bishops and lay Catholics of being driven by politics and not Catholic teaching.

The president of Trinity University in Washington, D.C. — who has been controversial for her own public accolades for pro-abortion politicians like Trinity alumna Nancy Pelosi, now speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and the late Jesuit Father Robert Drinan — used Trinity’s commencement ceremony as an opportunity to denounce the “religious vigilantism” of Notre Dame’s critics. “A half-century of progress for Catholic higher education is at risk of slipping back into those insular, parochial pre-Vatican II days […when] academic freedom was not valued within the Catholic Church,” she claimed.

That is secularist nonsense, though sadly not an uncommon belief at many Catholic universities.

Pope Benedict clearly laid out an authentic version of academic freedom for all of the U.S. Catholic college presidents when he met with them last year. The Holy Father has linked the crisis of truth on Catholic campuses to a crisis of faith. That is what is at the core of the problem in Catholic higher education.
Q: How can Catholics use this as an opportunity to move forward, and to advance the cause of strengthening the Church at col
leges and universities?
Reilly: Catholics cannot retreat after making such a strong statement about Notre Dame.

Every time a Catholic college or university acts contrary to its Catholic identity, Catholics should express the same concern.

The Cardinal Newman Society has worked for 16 years to build support for authentic Catholic education by remaining faithful to the bishops and the Magisterium, and we hope that the Notre Dame scandal will convince thousands more Catholics to join the movement in the Church for renewal.

Public witness to scandal has a long-term impact. The Cardinal Newman Society’s repeated protests against commencement scandals led to the U.S. bishops’ 2004 ban on honors and platforms for public opponents of Catholic moral teaching.

And it was our continued reporting on the disobedience of Catholic colleges and universities that helped motivate hundreds of thousands of Catholics to stand up to Notre Dame. That witness must continue.
But the real hope in Catholic higher education is found in the forward-looking, faithful activity of the best Catholic institutions and individuals within universities like Notre Dame who are working for a renewal of Catholic identity.

Last year we launched the Center for the Study of Catholic Higher Education to study critical issues and promote best practices in Catholic higher education. In the midst of the Notre Dame scandal, the Center issued “The Enduring Nature of the Catholic University” — posted at — featuring Bishop David Ricken of Green Bay, Wisconsin; Father Augustine DiNoia, undersecretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; Father David O’Connell, president of the Catholic University of America; and others.

Father DiNoia writes: “Surely, if the example of Pope Benedict XVI teaches us nothing else, it should teach us confidence in the inherent attractiveness of the Christian faith, and, in particular, the Catholic vision of higher education and of the vocation of the theologian. While the assumptions of the ambient culture will not always be friendly to it, this vision nonetheless deserves to be presented fully and without compromise.”

Fully Catholic without compromise. That’s the approach to Catholic higher education that Pope Benedict proposes, and exactly what Notre Dame failed to exhibit in its honor to President Obama.

— — —

On the Net:

The Cardinal Newman Society:

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry


Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation