Americanist Universities

Was it Oscar Wilde who remarked that life imitates art? Whoever said it, the University of Notre Dame campus is living proof that it’s so. Just look at those trees.
Last time I visited Notre Dame it was June. The weather was splendid, with that crystalline splendor that only June — no longer tremulous spring, not yet gross summer — can achieve. As I strolled on that handsome campus fairly glowing with prosperity, I made a surprising discovery: At Notre Dame, even the trees have donor plaques.
Notre Dame’s trees are life imitating art. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a school’s using its trees to raise money — it’s the same as bake sales and raffles, just more sophisticated. Yet the tree gambit expresses the special genius prevailing at Notre Dame: Only God can make a tree, but here’s a school that makes money from its shrubbery.
This is American to the Nth degree, with that distinctive get-ahead Americanism skewered in times past by the likes of Mencken and Sinclair Lewis. As it happens, it’s also the Americanism driving Notre Dame’s invitation to President Barack Obama to deliver this year’s commencement address and receive an honorary doctorate.
“A coup,” former Newsweek religion editor Ken Woodward, a longtime Notre Dame booster, called it in the Washington Post. Yes, but a coup on behalf of what? In case you weren’t looking, Obama is the most aggressively pro-abortion president we’ve ever had.

Defenders of Notre Dame make the irrelevant point that a university ought to welcome diverse points of view. But Obama wasn’t asked just to visit and give a lecture or engage in a debate — he was invited to receive the highest honor the university has in its power to bestow. This is outrageous, but so what? Notre Dame is a big-time school in the American academic style, with lots of money and prestige. Notre Dame can do whatever it wants.
To be American is in no sense a bad thing, but to be Americanist — as Notre Dame and other quasi-Catholic schools like it have become — is problematical at best. Today’s Americanism isn’t precisely the “Americanism” that Pope Leo XIII condemned in 1899, but it’s a close cousin. As expressed by Notre Dame’s invitation to Obama, the Americanist impulse signifies wholehearted entry into the secularist mainstream.
Rev. John Jenkins, C.S.C., Notre Dame’s president,and his supporters have not been helped by the news that Arizona State University, where Obama will be commencement speaker a week before his scheduled May 17 appearance in South Bend, won’t be giving the president an honorary doctorate since his presidency is just getting started. Apparently Notre Dame couldn’t wait.
Nor is it helpful that the new Notre Dame law school dean, Nell Jessup Newton, turns out to have given $7,550 to pro-abortion candidates including Obama and John Kerry, as well as the Democratic congressional campaign committee. “A person deeply committed to the university’s mission,” Father Jenkins commented in a welcoming statement he might now wish to take back.
The best news lately for Notre Dame was the decision by the student producers of The Vagina Monologues that they won’t be staging that notorious pornographic play there this year because to do so would be “counterproductive.” How right they are. Would that their elders under the Golden Dome had as much sense.
Predictions are risky. My prediction nonetheless is that, no matter how all this turns out, the Notre Dame-Obama flap will in the future be seen as a turning-point — whether for the better or for the worse only time can tell.
Up to the moment of writing, a quarter of a million people have put their names on a petition of protest, several dozen bishops have spoken out — many in remarkably angry tones — and it is said that a cardinal has declined to accept an honorary doctorate from the university at the same time Obama gets his.
What all these people understand, but the academic bureaucrats running Notre Dame do not, is that opposition to abortion and the defense of unborn life have supplied much of the glue holding American Catholicism more or less together in the last 40 years — four decades during which the unity and the Catholic identity of American Catholicism have otherwise been severely at risk.
A lot of that has been the work of the quasi-Catholic schools like Notre Dame operating under the aegis of the 1967 Land-o’-Lakes policy statement, in which the presidents of these institutions declared their independence from the rest of the Church and their allegiance to the principles of the American secular academic establishment.
Now, in choosing to honor our pro-abortion president, Notre Dame’s message to pro-life Catholics, including the bishops of the United States, is, “Get over it. It’s time to grow up and move on just as we’ve done.”
Rather than going to the substance of the controversy, the defense of the invitation that Father Jenkins presented to his board of trustees was an embarrassing exercise in legalism. The conclusion couldn’t be clearer. Notre Dame can’t see the forest for the trees — all those donor-plaqued trees and the Americanist compromise that they and the Obama invitation so tellingly represent.

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

  • Bruce Roeder

    Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said, “If we do not behave as we believe, then we will believe as we behave.” The American error of

  • Ann

    Excellent article.

    Of course it’s all about money. Research money, grant money, you name it. The ultimate example of sucking up and selling out, at the expense of their faith, at the expense of the unborn.

    Who controls all the money in DC now ultimately?

    Obama appointees.

    And Notre Dame wants their piece.

  • Ender

    My prediction nonetheless is that, no matter how all this turns out, the Notre Dame-Obama flap will in the future be seen as a turning-point — whether for the better or for the worse only time can tell.

    This is perhaps the only point in Mr. Shaw’s article with which I disagree. The Obama invitation is not so much a turning point as it is a signpost, offering not a choice of which way to go in the future but showing us how far we have already gone. It may well be that the street will turn more steeply down hill from this point but this event represents only a change in velocity, not in direction.

  • R.C.

    I have encountered some who believe that the term “Catholicism” means (not, “is sometimes sadly associated with,” but actually means):

    – Ignorance of the Bible and of doctrine in general
    – An inherited cultural identifier, not a voluntarily selected loyalty
    – Proclivity to foul language and abuse of alcohol
    – Empty ritualism

    …and so on.

    This is, of course, false. Those who believe it are excused, if only slightly, by the fact that such attributes probably can be found amongst some Catholics of their acquaintance.

    But they remain partly culpable because, had they looked at Catholicism (as opposed to certain Catholics) with due diligence, they’d have quickly discovered that the Catholics they were using to define Catholicism were in fact, not good Catholics, according to Catholicism’s definition of itself.

    It looks to me like you’re making a similar error about Americans and “Americanism”: Taking a collection of bad behaviors of certain distasteful Americans and saying, “these things are the sum total of what it means to be an American, therefore they should be termed ‘Americanism’.”

    And that’s dishonest or at least prejudiced use of the language. One wouldn’t write a history of the Borgia popes and title it, The Essence of Catholicism.

    Now “Catholicism” is already a word with a meaning, so to define it tendentiously is not too harmful: The real definition is available as a corrective.

    But “Americanism” is sneakier. It is a non-word; Americans do not take what they think makes them Americans and say, “and that is what we call Americanism.” They do not use the term at all; it is an artificial term. It is only synthesized into being by those who wish, in the process of describing something they think bad, to make the listener think that bad thing defines America as a whole. And because it is a new word, one can’t easily say, “now waitaminute, that’s not the real definition of American, here’s the real definition, right here in Webster’s.”

    Anyhow, I don’t see that this misuse of the lexicon is intrinsic to your argument; you could easily do without it.

  • Tom Buggeln

    Ror those of us following the course of Catholic higher education since the mid 1960’s, the Notre Deme brouhuha should come as no surprise.

    After all, didn’t N.D. take the lead in the secularization effort by putting together the Land O’Lakes statement which in effect divorced the university from the magisterium in return for Federal funds?

    And wasn’t Fr. Hesburgh appointed head of the Rockefeller Foundation which then as now supports eugenic programs which encourage and provide intellectual ammunition for abortion programs?

    It’s only natural that a pro=abortion President be honored by this institution which has been going through a half century of gradual apostasy!

  • Michael Baruzzini

    I want to encourage everyone who is as (justifiably) angered by the University of Notre Dame’s actions as I am to turn that anger into positive support for the faithful, orthodox students and alumni of the University.

    As a somewhat recent graduate, I can state that Notre Dame is still in the grip of the faith, more so than many other “Americanist” Catholic universities. The administration and the majority of the student body are not faithful to the Church in word or deed, yet it is a campus that is still haunted by an inescapable and deep love for the Faith. Even Notre Dame’s apostasies are usually defended by weak appeals to orthodoxy, however lame those appeals may be. Living and studying at the University, one gets the sense that ND continually attempts to merge the latest heretical fads into Catholicism, and is genuinely, if nonetheless stupidly, astonished when it doesn’t work.

    Notre Dame may be a prodigal son; but the prodigal son came home. The University can be salvaged; there is a very strong and vibrant orthodox and faithful community of students and alumni. They need the wider Church’s support, not abandonment. Notre Dame was once a great Catholic University in the US; it can be again if we support those trying to make it so.

  • Fr Michael

    Should not our bishops be asked the question, as a matter of truth, whether they continue to recognize Notre Dame as a “Catholic” university in accord with Church teaching in Ex Corde Ecclesiae? Bishop Bruskewitz, for one, has publicly said he does not.

  • Austin

    It appears that ND President Fr. Jenkins has painted himself into a corner. If he rescinds the invite to Obama he catches flak and if he goes through with it, he catches flak. Perhaps he is now wondering if it would have been better not to invite Obama in the first place? In his zeal to pull off a “coup” he appears to have shot himself in the foot.

    Perhaps this is an opportunity for Ft. Jenkins to “engage” Obama regarding abortion? I doubt it. I suspect Ft. Jenkins may be in hot water with his Fathers of the Holy Cross superiors? The irish may need both a new President and a new football coach?

  • Guy

    It is a turning point. Notre Dame stands for progressive Catholicism, not the one -issue hate filled fanaticism of the Catholic right wing. By sticking its finger in the eye of all those who equate Catholicism with criminalizing abortion, it is the standard bearer for the vast majority of American Catholics (and Catholics world-wide and American bishops who have remained silent). It’s Catholicism for grown ups.

    Oh the Jeremiads that will follow this posting!

  • Mark Rutledge

    Poisoning the well, Guy? Let’s keep such cheap debate tactics off this forum, shall we?

    Guy’s post illustrates the problem with how this issue is perceived at large. Knowledgeable Catholics may understand what orthodoxy is, what it entails, and why abortion is one of the touchstone issues of our day. However, there are many nominal Catholics who don’t know their faith; who have compartmentalized the Church into a spiritual corner subordinate to their wants and desires, their wills and their whims. It is those who are stymied by appeals to “dialogue,” to an illusory “academic freedom,” and the siren-song of “progressive” Catholicism. Let all good orthodox Catholics use this as a teaching moment for those around us who don’t know what we have.

  • Rick

    It seems to me that the Notre Dame scandal is using abortion as a red herring. There is something else that must be discussed.

    A Catholic University must engage the world from its knees. That is, the Catholic University must examine the world from its unique perspective as a participant in the Catholic intellectual and religious tradition. The Catholic University must examine the world through Faith (fides quaerens intellectum). Unfortunately, the Notre Dames of the world view their Catholic identity as a stumbling block (unless it is used to raise donations from old alumni who went to the University during a more Catholic phase). Instead of dialoguing with the world from a Catholic position, they ape the world and its positions. Notre Dame trips over itself to deny its Catholic roots and unique perspective. I would have loved to see Notre Dame invite Obama for a debate over abortion. Of course, Obama would never have accepted.

    Let’s say that the president of ND revoked his invitation of Obama. The right would be happy, but the problem at ND would remain — the University dislikes its Catholic roots. ND is indicative of the problems of Catholicism in American during the 1950s and 1960s. Catholics hungered for acceptance as real Americans. In seeking secular legitimacy, an understandable desire given the context of anti-Catholicism in the US, they sold thier birthright. ND might have a minority group of professors and students who are committed to orthodoxy, but the problem remains: the institution as a whole rejects Catholicism as a path to understanding the world.

  • Austin

    Rick, yes, even if Fr. Jenkins rescinds the invitation to Obama, we still have the issue of what does ND think? Where are they? We know what Obama thinks, but unfortunately, ND seems to agree with him in ares where they should not.

    Fr. Jenkins says he wants to “engage” him: I don’t think so. Ditto Georgetown. Our two most famous and powerful unversities seem to have dropped the ball. There is more to being a university than football and basketball. It would have been nice for them to speak truth to power, but they won’t.

  • Mark

    Since there is close to nothing traditionally “American” about Barack Obama’s world view, I think his invitation to Notre Dame puts them into the category of “Globalist University”

  • B. Thomas

    What all these people understand, but the academic bureaucrats running Notre Dame do not, is that opposition to abortion and the defense of unborn life have supplied much of the glue holding American Catholicism more or less together in the last 40 years

  • Rev. Peter M. Calabrese

    Dear B Thomas,
    I never knew Adolph Hitler and I won’t presume to judge his soul but the actions of Adolph Hitler were genocidal and his ideology. Condemning his actions and his ideology just calling sin sin. In the same way I condemn the pro-choice ideology. It is sin. Notre Dame has consistently promoted abortion by honoring those that have promoted it. To talk about the Eucharist as the unifying force is right. But when you choose to butcher babies for personal or political gain, as St Paul says, you eat your condemnation. It is not hate that causes Pro-Lifers to speak out against the blasphemies against the Eucharist perpetuated by abortion supporters, rather it is love for the Eucharist and hope that their brothers and sisters who are eating their condemnation may repent and place themselves again in union with the Church.
    It is a shame that the Pro-Life movement has had to keep the Church together. It is even more a shame that the slaughter of babies is now dividing it because some of the Church’s members boast about being progressive instead of faithful. Progressive being a euphemism for promoting mortal sin.
    Finally Mr Thomas it is you who judge. The Pro-Life movement has NEVER been about a single political solution to abortion. Of coursing adding “some” gets you off the hook but in reality you are making a sweeeping generalizaiton about the Pro-Life Movement that “many progressives and liberals” often make that borders on calumny. The Pro-Life Movement has always been about prayer, about helping women in problem pregnancies and about helping those who have undergone the brutal murderous tortures of abortionists. The Pro-Life movement has always been about the whole problem. It is the “progressive” Catholics who are single issue people: they seek single political solution of murdering babies as a solution to difficult pregnancies.

    May God have mercy on the soul of all who promote the killing of babies starting with Notre Dame’s administration and our President. Perhaps the celebration of Divine Mercy this weekend will break hearts toward repentance.

  • Mara

    I think that Mr. Shaw is right. This will become a turning point for the church as will the investigation and apostolic visitation into the women religious communities. Institutions, universities, religious groups who operate under the name of Catholic will be forced to choose: fidelity to the Church in all of her teachings (and loyalty to His Holiness, the Pope) or schism.

    I wonder what Fr. Jenkins and Notre Dame would choose? Unfortunately, in my view, Fr. Jenkins has become the face of the American Martin Luther who just nailed his 95 thesis to the door of Notre Dame. The question remains whether or not his followers will have the courage to admit that there is a schism within the American Church and accept the fact that they are its new leaders.

  • Tom

    The time is overdue to speak the TRUTH.
    Bishop D’Arcy should announce that Notre Dame is not now, nor has it been for some time, a “Catholic” university in accord with Church teaching. Therefore, the university should not make the claim that they are a “Catholic” institution.
    (Please prayerfully read “Ex Corde Ecclesiae” before arguing that Notre Dame is Catholic.)
    We should continue to pray for their conversion and for their return to the fold.

  • Susan

    Yes to Tom. And it is time for the Newman Society to start collecting signatures requesting Bishop D’Arcy to declare the truth on this matter.