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A Non-Catholic’s Disappointment at Notre Dame

The invocation [1] at the University of Notre Dame’s recent Commencement Ceremony was deeply disappointing.  I am a two-time Notre Dame graduate.  I attended the ceremony – my brother just earned his Bachelor’s degree.  But other than that, it left me cold.

The invocation was centered on human unity and reminded us that we are all made in God’s image, a “crucial, unifying premise.”  I appreciate this theme.  But the invocator took it too far, saying: “regardless of our different faiths, we pray together.  Whether we pray to the Lord Jesus Christ, Allah, Yahweh, the heavenly father, Brahman, another entity, all entities, or no entity, we are unified . . . to come together as one body with collective hearts to pray.”  This is troubling.

I think this prayer was meant to make non-Catholics – like me – feel welcome at Notre Dame.  I appreciate that intent.  Unfortunately, the prayer did not achieve that end and, indeed, diminished Notre Dame in this non-Catholic’s eyes.

As an orthodox Lutheran, I’ve always felt welcome at Notre Dame.  As both an undergraduate and law student, most of my best friends were Catholic. And Catholic professors invited me into their classrooms, their offices, and even their homes.  They showed me Catholic love.  They were strong witnesses to their faith, especially when that meant conforming their behavior to Catholic teachings. Their love made me revere Notre Dame and the Catholic Church.

When I was excluded from campus events because of my faith, I never felt disrespected.  For instance, as a non-Catholic, I was not allowed to receive Communion at campus Masses.  Alumni know that Mass, especially dorm Mass, is an important community activity at Notre Dame.

But being excluded from the core act of the Mass never bothered me.  In fact, it made me admire Notre Dame even more.  Catholics and Lutherans both believe that Holy Communion is an act of confession.  Not in the sense of confessing a sin, but in the sense of saying back to God what you believe Him to be.

Accordingly, Paul wrote that “whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”  I was “excluded” from the Eucharist because I don’t proclaim many of the things Catholics do, just as my church excludes from Holy Communion those who don’t proclaim the things we do.

I was, of course, saddened that my friends were not Lutheran, just as I’m sure they were saddened that I wasn’t Catholic.  But I respected the Catholic Church for taking its beliefs seriously enough to confess them with unity and consistency.

I did not feel that same respect at this year’s commencement ceremony.

Of course, prayer is different from Communion.  Even though I don’t commune alongside Catholics, I do pray with them.  We pray to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to His Holy Spirit, and to His Son, Jesus Christ, whose death on the Cross saved us from our sins.  I disagree with Catholics over many details of His nature, but when a prayer is made “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” I know it is addressed to the God I worship.

Prayer, like Communion, is an act of confession. Thus, the Catholic Catechism [2] says that “[i]n prayer, the faithful God’s initiative of love always comes first; our own first step is always a response.”  It describes prayer beautifully as “a reciprocal call, a covenant drama.”  As in Holy Communion, when we pray, we tell God who we believe He is.  Surely it follows that our prayers must be addressed to only one God.  And when our understandings of God differ, we should not sully our confessions by pretending they don’t.

That is why I unclasped my hands when the invocator said that we “join in prayer with those of all faiths.”  I do not join in prayer with those who pray to Allah or Brahman. I certainly do not join in prayer to those who pray to “all entities” or to “no entity at all.”  I am fairly sure Notre Dame’s president, Father John Jenkins [3], does not either.

My own church has well-defined boundaries on how to pray in settings that include non-Christians.  In a 2004 report [4], a Lutheran Church/Missouri Synod commission implored pastors to “avoid terminology that would allow those of other religions to conclude that they have the same faith or belief as the one offering the prayer.”  The commission reasoned that to be a witness to the Gospel, the prayer must reflect “the uniqueness and exclusivity of God’s gracious provision of salvation through Christ alone.”

Notre Dame would do well to adopt the commission’s advice and not to give its blessing to prayers like this one.  While it was made in the name of unity, it did not make this non-Catholic feel more welcome.  Rather, it only made Notre Dame less boldly Catholic.  Of course, the invocator was right that all people, including Jews, Muslims, Hindus, pantheists, and atheists, are made in God’s image.  But that does not mean Catholics should join in prayer to their gods.

To this non-Catholic, it is deeply important that Notre Dame remain Catholic.  When it is Catholic, Notre Dame is a beacon of courage to all of us who thirst for truth in a world filled with moral and theological relativism.  When it excludes us, it is sometimes that very exclusion that makes Notre Dame great.

The same could be said of many institutions, including the Boy Scouts [5], the Catholic Church [6], and even whole countries [7].  Such institutions are often defined by the ideals and values of those they include – and by implication, by the ideas and values they exclude.  To include everyone in every institution will ultimately erode all institutions’ values and identities.

As I’ve done since I matriculated at Notre Dame, I pray for the unity of the holy catholic Church, in the name of her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  I hope Father Jenkins and the rest of the Notre Dame community will join me.

Eric Hageman earned his Bachelor of Architecture degree from Notre Dame in 2013 and his J.D. from Notre Dame in 2016. He practices law in Washington, DC.