Notre Dame and the Hungry Sheep

When I was in high school, a Christian Brothers high school, I had a very fine teacher, himself a Christian Brother, who from time to time would quote a line from John Milton’s “Lycidas” – “The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed.” I didn’t get the point of it at the time, but I remembered the line all the same.

I thought of that line the other day when I read in the news that the University of Notre Dame had awarded its prestigious 2016 Laetare Medal to Vice President Joe Biden – a man who is both a Catholic and at the same time one of the nation’s most conspicuous defenders of abortion rights and same-sex marriage.

How odd – no, how downright weird – that America’s most famous Catholic university should honor a man who in effect shouts from the rooftops that the Catholic religion, his religion, has been in error for the past 2,000 years or so in its condemnation of abortion and homosexual conduct.

I don’t recall that the Kremlin ever awarded the Stalin Prize to a person who called Stalin a murderous butcher. Nor do I recall that George Washington ever said, “Benedict Arnold, though he has a few shortcomings, is basically a good American. I’m proud to call him my friend.”

In 2009 Notre Dame (where, by the way, I myself once studied philosophy as a grad student – way back in the days of Ralph McInerny, Joe Evans, and Ernan McMullen – shocked great numbers of American Catholics, including many Catholic bishops, by awarding an honorary degree to President Obama. After a tremendous negative reaction, you’d think Notre Dame had learned its lesson.

Apparently not. This honor paid to Biden is, if anything, even more of an outrage. After all, Obama was not a Catholic; he was a liberal Protestant, a member of a United Church of Christ congregation back in Chicago. Nor at the time did he support same-sex marriage. (No doubt he did support it in his heart, but with his tongue he was still saying that he believed marriage should be between one man and one woman.)

Biden the Catholic: ashes
Biden the Catholic: ashes

It’s not just that Notre Dame has let down the Catholic religion. It has let down its numerous alumni, at least that section of its alumni who remain orthodox Catholics. It has also let down millions of American Catholics, living and dead – its “subway alumni” (as they used to be called), American Catholics who for well over a century have prayed for Notre Dame, have cheered on its athletic teams, have contributed money, and have encouraged their children and grandchildren to attend the university.

Notre Dame’s idea seems to be that a compromise can be worked out between Catholicism and the secular humanism that is culturally dominant in the United States today. And who better symbolizes that ideal compromise than VP Biden – a man who, disregarding the logical principle of non-contradiction, warmly embraces both the creed of Catholicism and the antithetical creed of secular humanism?

But that way lies madness. For the history of 20th century liberal Protestantism demonstrates beyond a shadow of doubt that the attempt to find a happy via media between Christianity and anti-Christianity leads to the eventual triumph of anti-Christianity.

Will Catholic bishops rise up and condemn the Biden award, as many of them rose up and condemned the Obama honor in 2009? Or will they confess, by remaining relatively silent, that Notre Dame has beaten them? Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington is scheduled to be honored the same day. Will he make any public comment on the situation? This remains to be seen.

What about Rome? Will the Vatican reprimand Notre Dame for caving in once again to American secular humanism? Or could it be that the Vatican is silently nodding in approval, pleased that America’s leading Catholic university is refusing to “obsess” about things like abortion and homosexuality?

“The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed.” There are, I believe, many millions of American Catholics who would be quite willing to defend their religion against the attacks being made against it, both internally and externally, by the forces of anti-Christian secular humanism. But these many millions lack effective leadership. For the most part their bishops and parish priests, though on the whole good men, are not fighters, not culture warriors.

As for our leading universities, I use the plural for Notre Dame is certainly not alone in this, they believe in compromises that will eventually prove self-destructive. Just this week Georgetown announced that Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, will give a lecture on the campus; and Seattle University, like Georgetown an institution in “the Jesuit tradition,” is hosting a conference for its nursing students about offering “the full range of reproductive services.”

No wonder our team is losing.

David Carlin

David Carlin is a retired professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.