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A House Divided

There were two commencement ceremonies at Notre Dame on Sunday. One was the media event in which alleged prestige trumped the truth that you cannot honor a man, president or not, whose policies are unabashedly pro-abortion without honoring abortion.

The other took place at the grotto and on the west mall, untelevised, in the shadow of Rockne Memorial, at which the Mass and prayers, principally the rosary, were offered in reparation for the administration’s unconscionable sleeping with the enemy. And speeches were made, most notably by Father Wilson Miscamble, CSC; Professor David Solomon, director of the Center for Ethics and Culture; Chris Godfrey; and Father John Raphael. The Orestes Brownson Society gave their Bishop D’Arcy award in absentia to Mary Ann Glendon.

Of course the administration has tried to call black white and portray its betrayal as somehow a statement of its largely muted pro-life outlook. The fallacious defenses on the part of a once stellar philosopher, Father John Jenkins, continued in his introduction of the president, exhibit how corruptive of clear thinking holding high office can be. Not since the local lands were wrested from the Indians has a white father spoken with such forked tongue.

It is the students who have stood tall, retained clarity of mind, and refused to accept that their Catholicism could be switched off in order to sup with the devil. Among those at the alternative commencement, the one in fundamental continuity with the noble tradition of a great Catholic university, were some graduating seniors.

It might be thought that it would require something far less momentous than this moral crisis to make absence from a commencement ceremony, even one’s own, unattractive. Nonetheless, most seniors, many with misgivings, attended the equivocal occasion under the dome of the Joyce Athletic and Convocation Center. There, smooth talk reigned and listeners were invited to view this shameful occasion as fulfilling the wishes of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. (In a later column, I will discuss the notion of “dialogue” that was invoked in the Joyce Center.) The senior class was divided by this unfortunate invitation; so was the university, so were the alumni and so were Catholics throughout the nation.

This division among Catholics has been widening for more than forty years. How did it come about that so many Catholics have such a mushy notion of what it means to be a Catholic? The teaching of the faith since the close of Vatican II in 1965 has been scandalously inadequate. In many cases it has been the deliberate substituting of stones for bread. It began with waffling on contraception when theologians, real or self-proclaimed, impudently rejected Humanae Vitae, one of the great encyclicals of modern times. The scandal of the encyclical was that it placed Catholics on one side of a line and the zeitgeist on the other. Yet dissent from it was allowed to flourish. Moral theology went into steep decline and the official body of Catholic theologians issued Human Sexual Morality in which doubt was cast on the long tradition of teaching on pre-marital and extra-marital sex, abortion, masturbation, homosexuality, divorce – a systematic dismantling of Catholic moral teaching.

All that is an old and oft-told story, still largely ignored officially. There grew up the notion that dissent from clear Church teaching was okay. With time, the difference between the moral teaching of dissenters and what was dismissively called “official” teaching blurred. Generations have been given a distorted notion of the faith. It is no wonder that Catholic politicians undertook to support policies in flat contradiction to what they purportedly believed privately. And so it was that on Sunday at Notre Dame faithful Catholics were regarded as dissenters. To such disfavor we have come.

If the Obama invitation has stirred such passionately prayerful reaction from an heroic band of students, from alumni and Catholics across the country, and – mirabile dictu – from more than seventy bishops, it may prove to have been providential, an opportunity for Catholics to recognize that their house is indeed divided.

Anathemas have been called for. Some long to have Notre Dame declared non-Catholic. Perhaps it will come to that, but the awakening of the laity, simple priests, a large number of the bishops, suggests that this is a possible epiphany. The sad fact is that people act contrary to the faith without realizing that that is what they are doing. A heretic chooses the opposite of the faith, but when in the present confusion as to what is in and what is out, heresy is not the appropriate word.

And so, on Sunday, surrounded by priests and all the panoply of Notre Dame, the smiling Caesar, thumb turned down on life, was engulfed in allegedly Catholic applause. Elsewhere on campus, faithful Catholics gathered and sent up prayers of reparation.

Ralph McInerny (1929-2010) was a writer of philosophy, fiction, and cultural criticism, who taught at Notre Dame from 1955 until his death in 2010. He was among the founding contributors to The Catholic Thing.