Notre Dame, President Obama, and Faith’s Future in Catholic Universities

As with all issues that evoke strong emotional reactions among Catholics, the recent controversy surrounding Notre Dame’s granting an honorary degree to President Obama raises many fundamental questions about who we are as Catholic-Americans. Among other things, the controversy should force us to ask the following fundamental question about Catholic education: to what extent should Catholic Institutions of Higher Education reflect any relationship between Faith and Reason?

Once upon a time in our Catholic tradition, we intuitively grasped that Faith and Reason were good, if not best, friends. And these friends not only relished each other’s company, but flourished in the other’s presence. We had great sayings to capture the natural relationship such as “Lex Orandi, Lex Creendi” — we believe as we pray. In fact, John Paul II even devoted an entire encyclical to this foundational relationship of our Catholic journey — Fides et Ratio.

Although Faith always preceded and directed the search for Reason, Reason was always seen as the natural completion of Faith lived out in our human history. Indeed, Reason helped clarify and strengthen our Faith and Faith reciprocated by offering Reason the very authorization and encouragement to explore truths of the universe from disciplines outside of theology. As with any healthy relationship, each respected and affirmed the other without ever asking the other to be more or less than what it was – each was true to itself and true to the other.

Given this great relationship in our Church’s history, Pope Benedict XVI recently reminded Catholic Educators that “every Catholic Institution is a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth.” (Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI: Meeting with Catholic Educators at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. on April 17, 2008). In short, the Catholic Institution is first and foremost a place where students encounter the Living God who is not only the way and the life, but the truth. All intellectual pursuits have their very purpose and authority rooted in this fundamental reality.

Thus, what should set a Catholic Institution apart from any secular institution is that it recognizes the intrinsic and everlasting connection between the Truth as revealed by God in history (Faith in God’s Revelation) and all the secondary and meaningful discoveries about truth through the many wondrous methods of human thought and intellectual pursuits which shed further light on Truth itself (Reason).

Despite the common misconceptions, it does not necessarily follow that we Catholics want to deny sociological, scientific, psychological, legal, medical or any other recognized academic disciplines their due. Quite the contrary, in the great tradition of towering intellects such as Origen of Alexandria, Maximus the Confessor, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, we strive to learn all that the sciences and any other discipline can tell us as all truths can help us learn just a little more about ultimate Truth, which is revealed though Jesus Christ. To the extent that all truth exists in Jesus Christ we have been given full revelation through Him. Yet we also recognize that much remains unknown and perhaps will remain unknown and unknowable until the Second Coming or perhaps during our own journey into heaven. This tension gives Reason even more of a prominent role in our salvation history.

But as the Notre Dame episode has made painfully clear, the relationship between Faith and Reason, particularly as it was articulated by our Holy Father during his recent trip to America, is in serious danger in Catholic-American universities such as Notre Dame. Specifically, if you listen to the approach taken by many Catholics to the Notre Dame issues, albeit with good intentions, they assume that the old friends of Faith and Reason are not always on the same page anymore. Of course, they do not talk about Faith and Reason as such, but they nevertheless reveal their bias against Faith when they speak of abortion as if it were merely another intellectual issue in which reasonable persons might differ.

Indeed, Notre Dame serves as Exhibit A in support of the possibility that the longstanding Catholic approach to Faith and Reason in the university has been de facto replaced by an approach which is quite different in fundamental respects. Under this modernized understanding of a Catholic University, a Catholic University becomes first and foremost a place of academic learning; and in order to preserve its position among secular universities, it must emphasize that its rational and academic approach is devoid of ecclesiastical shackles. Although these folks often invoke phrases such as “academic freedom,” “plurality of thought,” and other convenient slogans, they all presuppose that Reason and Intelligent pursuits should not be slowed down by the inconveniences of our Dogmas and Teachings lest we lose academic standing among the elite institutions of higher education.

This is the theological equivalence of the Seinfeld “it’s not you… it’s me” routine. For in the name of Reason and Academia, they are basically saying: “don’t take it personally Faith, you aren’t so bad – but I can’t be tied down – it’s not you, it’s me . . . I’ve got to be free to do and say things in the world of the intellectual elite and I just can’t do it with you around – so it’s not really you, it’s me!” Thus, in order to justify a university’s status among the intellectual elite, it believes that it needs to give a nod to modernity and prove that its forward thinking allows for discussion even when those discussions might be inconsistent with the Catholic Faith.

Unfortunately, the disintegration of the Faith-Reason relationship in the University is more than just an academic struggle over approaches, but implicates the very nature of what it means to be Catholic. This became apparent for all to see when President Obama, a champion of the anti-Catholic approach to abortion, was dignified with a degree from a Catholic Institution. Here, we saw the huge consequences from the break-up of Faith and Reason in action: a person can take the most fundamentally non-Catholic view–to support the taking of innocent human life through abortion–and yet be honored, cheered and even given a degree by a Catholic Institution, all in the name of modernity, academic freedom and plurality of thought.

Perhaps it would have been less regrettable to honor a pro-abortion person had the university at least paid lip service to preserving some union of Faith and Reason. But the reasons given for awarding a pro-abortion person an honorary degree were so imbued with a rational approach to our Catholicism, that they actually paved the way for the award’s recipient to readily dismiss our Faith’s approach to Human Life altogether. The scene will be impressed on our memories for quite some time — Catholics on hand enthusiastically cheering as a pro-abortion President rhetorically and passionately demonstrated a very reasonable approach to an “issue” to which reasonable minds might differ.

Meanwhile, the very Faith which prompted the University in the first place was not only absent amidst the burst of enthusiasm, but Faith’s absence was hardly even noticed.
Charles J. Gernazian
Founder and Director
Catholic-American Center on Law and Religion, Inc.

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