Notre Dame’s Betrayal

In recent weeks, liberal pundits have rallied to the defense of the University of Notre Dame, which plans to honor President Barack Obama with an honorary law degree on Sunday. The award has been protested by 74 Catholic bishops and more than 360,000 Catholics signing The Cardinal Newman Society‘s petition at

Washington Post Columnist E.J. Dionne suggests that “the Catholic right’s over-the-top response is rooted at least as much in Republican and conservative politics as in concern over the abortion question.” Fox News Channel’s Alan Colmes complains, “So while Obama speaks about bringing people together, and the plurality of religious practices that make a great nation, it’s some of those who oppose him who use religion to divide.”

By Patrick J. Reilly
president, Cardinal Newman Society

Catholic groups and publications that have fawned over Obama and other pro-choice politicians–like Catholics United, Catholic Democrats, National Catholic Reporter and the Jesuits’ America magazine–also hypocritically accuse Notre Dame’s critics of political motives. But these voices of the left are guilty of exactly what they have accused faithful Catholics of doing: abusing religion to score political points.


They consistently describe the Notre Dame controversy in reference to politics, but it is not about politics. It is about a Catholic university’s betrayal of the Catholic bishops and lack of consideration for Catholic moral teaching. It is precisely about putting faith ahead of politics and secular prestige.

The individuals responsible for creating this debacle are the president of Notre Dame, Father John Jenkins, and the university’s trustees–not President Obama, not Notre Dame’s critics, and certainly not the dozens of outraged bishops.

In 2004 the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement which reads, in part: “The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.”

Such a mandate from the bishops’ conference is rare, but it was more than justified, following numerous commencement scandals at Catholic colleges and universities for more than a decade. Since 1993 these have been documented by The Cardinal Newman Society, which seeks the renewal of Catholic identity in Catholic higher education.

And there is nothing political or partisan about it.

A few years ago, we raised concerns about pro-choice presidential hopeful Rudolph Giuliani at Loyola College in Baltimore; just like Notre Dame’s bishop, Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore criticized the choice and refused to attend the commencement ceremony. When we raised the same concerns about Hillary Clinton at Marymount Manhattan College and Eliot Spitzer at Marist College, both New York institutions chose to admit that they were no longer Catholic institutions.

Catholic principles don’t change with party affiliation, and all serious Catholics would be happy if abortion and other intrinsic evils were opposed by both Democrats and Republicans.

Likewise, we would be thrilled if both parties–and all Catholic universities–would embrace the Church’s just war principles, social justice teachings and commitment to subsidiarity.

Those seeking to politicize the Notre Dame honor have been touting a poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life that found strong support for Notre Dame’s honor to President Obama even among self-identified Catholics. However, a subsequent Rasmussen Reports poll found that Catholics oppose the honor by an overwhelming 60% to 25% margin.

Why the difference between the polls? Rasmussen first informed respondents of the U.S. bishops’ policy against Catholic honors to public opponents of Catholic moral teaching, while Pew framed the issue through a political lens as “criticism of Notre Dame by abortion opponents.”

Understandably most people don’t want issue politics to interfere with commencement ceremonies. But, as the Rasmussen poll accurately captured, the Notre Dame honor is not about politics and is properly understood within the context of Catholic teaching and the university’s Catholic identity.

It’s understandable that President Obama’s admirers want to shield him from the embarrassment of controversy. But when they impose politics on the Catholic Church, and demand that deference to President Obama take precedent over preserving the Catholic identity of Notre Dame, they only succeed in revealing their own biases.

Patrick J. Reilly is president of The Cardinal Newman Society, a national organization that works to renew and strengthen Catholic identity in Catholic higher education.


One Response to “Notre Dame’s Betrayal”

  1. randyedye Says:

    Rock on, great posts

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