Notre Dame's Useful Service Print
By Bevil Bramwell   
Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Notre Dame has done a great service to the Catholic Church. Yes, I said service. For the first time in a long while, a noted “Catholic” institution has given clear public witness to its “Catholicism” in a way that cannot be fudged or swept under the rug. It is not every day that you can enlist the President of the United States, and a non-Catholic at that, to help you in making such an unequivocal assertion of your deepest understanding of what it means to be Catholic.

The University of Notre Dame has squarely put before the nation and the world a conception of Catholicism that is essentially a kind of low-church Protestantism, with its view of religion as “what we do in our local community.” In that kind of arrangement, the people in a particular church gathering may accept some common notions of what the Christian faith is, what Christian principles are, but reserve to themselves how they will be lived out institutionally. They have their own “take” on things, fiercely defend that take, and are extremely proud of it.

Needless to say none of this is how the Catholic Church understands things. No offence to low-church Protestantism, but we are by definition not low-church Protestants. Our local communities and institutions belong to a larger whole, the Catholic Church, what we believe to be a global – and universal – society established by God Himself. This larger whole holds to and teaches one truth. In this Catholic Church, at least according to the Second Vatican Council: “in Jesus Christ all the aforementioned truths find their root and attain their crown” (Gaudium et Spes, 22). This one truth describes reality. (Watch that connection to reality!) Thus all of the individual teachings of the Catholic Church are interrelated; there is no possibility of separating them for convenience, for having the President of the United States on campus, or because we have decided it’s of no great importance that we ignore certain of them.

Catholic institutions are Catholic if they teach all of the interrelated truths completely and in harmony with one another – and then live out those teachings in communion with the whole Church. Then they give honorary doctorates, not as you would a box of DVDs to say “thank you for coming,” but to acknowledge that a specific person has promoted and served the cause of the truth in some highly significant way. That is to say: all of the truths together, since mankind is one and there is one truth about mankind – expressed in Jesus Christ.

Coming at this from a different direction: one particular truth in the Catholic Truth is that killing babies (or any innocent human being) is wrong no matter how young they are. This is simply, factually true and it cannot be traded for some other truth such as that “he is the first black president” — by the way kudos to him for that – or that he has a vision of justice and peace. Facilitating the killing of babies or earmarking more money for killing babies, not only here but around the world, are actions that cannot be put in the balance with anything else (and by the way, say something about your view of justice and peace). Every baby’s life is of incalculable value. That is the reality. Honoring the man means participating in the trade-off of a specific human life – tragically and often enough a poor, black life as well – for something of far lesser value. It says: We have found something (his presence on our campus, his aspirations towards some aspects of social justice) that all but eliminates what should be our repugnance towards the wholesale taking of innocent human life. This is seriously flawed thinking, and in a civilized society, worthy of the name, is unconscionable.

So Notre Dame’s service has been to put before the world in blazingly stark and unquestionable terms that there are two Catholicisms in this country — one that simply chooses to overlook what even its own leaders claim to believe is an atrocity, in the name of a peaceful coexistence with modern Western secular culture. And then it promotes the most radical exponent of abortion ever to occupy the White House under the banner of Catholicism — its respect for faith and reason, and its respect and tolerance towards those with whom it disagrees.

Of course, there is another Catholicism, the Catholic Catholicism, the one that is faithful to the teachings of the Church and that therefore challenges Western culture to become more humane.

This division has been apparent for decades, but under the misleading rubric of tolerance the division has been allowed to continue and, as we now see, to develop into a parallel set of institutions. So Notre Dame has clarified the question. What are the leaders of the Church going to do? They led the Church during a confused period while this rift was developing. What are they going to do now?

Bevil Bramwell, priest of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, teaches theology at Catholic Distance University. He holds a Ph.D from Boston College and works in the area of ecclesiology.

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