Thursday, April 9, 2009

Notre Dame, Our Lady, and The Price Of Prestige

The Visitation Versus The Visit

And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
For, lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. (Luke 1:43-44).

During the recent Octave of the Feast of Annunciation, we contemplated Mary, who “arose in those days, and went into the hill country with haste,” to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth. Elizabeth and her unborn child were so thrilled -- they were “filled with the Holy Ghost.” Some of the most beautiful prayers of the Church flow from that joyous visit.

Our Lady visits Elizabeth – and us -- bearing the Word, the Messiah, Truth itself – the fulfillment of God’s promise to His people. In pondering the Second Joyful Mystery, who would not jump for joy like John the Baptist?

Well, apparently not everybody. Today the roles are reversed. Sure, the Notre Dame administration looks with nostalgic fondness to Our Lady, high on the Golden Dome. Mary, the Christ-Bearer, the Truth-Bearer, offers them the joyous promise of salvation in her Divine Son – but at a price. They pause. The price is high: Orthodoxy. Ridicule as a “Catholic backwater.” Permanent minor-league status.

And then, casting their eyes down towards the darkness, Notre Dame senses the awesome, majestic power that flows from the audacious messenger of earth-bound hope and the dynamic of the dialectic. In his presence, the teeming cauldron of unbridled passions is stirred -- honor, power, prestige, envy, superbia vitae. But the Fighting Irish nostrils tremble at the scent: could this secular savior actually reek of the stench of death? Is that aroma the cost of prestige?

Truth versus death. Who could hesitate at that choice? Only the clouded intellect would falter when meeting the ultimate supernatural object of its natural longing. But didn’t Pontius Pilate dither? And there he was, staring Truth in the face.

Not long ago, Notre Dame had to choose between the light and Plato’s cave. After centuries of prayer and sacrifice by generations of Christians who built Christendom and laid the intellectual and spiritual foundations for university life -- after a century of labor and prayer on the part of countless priests, brothers, and sisters of the Holy Cross, Notre Dame chose, a long generation ago, to turn its back on Holy Mother Church, who is inseparable from Christ, who is the Truth. And that choice has had consequences, although some of them took decades to come into view.

In declaring its independence from the Holy Spirit in favor of the Spirit of the Age, what did Notre Dame turn towards? Why, the future! After all, didn’t Harvard, Yale, and Columbia begin as seminaries? And didn’t those institutions eventually choose “excellence,” shedding the shackles of darkness and dogma to embrace the “search for truth,” unencumbered by the nagging nabobs of tradition? For the Apostles of Progress, faith was a ball-and-chain that imprisoned them in the ignorance of the past. In sundering their foul fetters, they leaped away from Christ and towards the future, full of the audacity of hope. In the 1960s, Notre Dame decided it wanted to play in that league, and acted accordingly.

The Two Standards

In the fourth day of his Spiritual Exercises, Saint Ignatius confronts the sinner with the Two Standards – “The one of Christ, our Commander-in-Chief and Lord; the other of Lucifer, mortal enemy of our human nature.” For Ignatius, these are battle standards – because, as Saint Paul makes clear, we are at war: “Put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” (Ephesians 11-12).

You’d think that the Fighting Irish would identify with Ignatius’s call to battle. But over forty years ago, they decided to do the impossible: to serve two masters – to wear both uniforms. After all, doesn’t the United States still have a “special relationship” with Great Britain, even though we declared our independence 233 years ago? Why can’t Notre Dame still be “Catholic” without having to be encumbered by the double albatross of Catholic discipline and doctrine?

Well, since I first went there in the 1960s, Notre Dame has certainly prospered, even progressed - in the physical sense, at least. Countless green lawns, fields, and pastures have been replaced with opulent structures, many bearing the names of prominent donors (a couple of them, rest their souls, were friends of mine. Pray for them, please, but do not blame them for believing the priestly palaver. When they went there, clericalism was admittedly prominent, but most of the priests lived up to their side of the bargain: they told -- and taught -- the truth).

I think the reason that the Obama invitation has caused so much turmoil is simply this: the “grace period” that Notre Dame received when it divorced the Church (“but we’re still friends”) is now limping to its natural end. The “decent interval” has turned -- first, indecent; finally, squalid. They cannot resuscitate the cadaver – nor do they want to.

Notre Dame’s lurid infatuation with the secular elites offends Catholic sensibilities of alumni as the wandering eye of the adulterer offends the chaste and faithful spouse. Each furtive flirtation, each pocketing of the wedding ring, is scandalous and boorish. But alea iacta est -- the die is cast. Notre Dame knows full well that Harvard cannot go back to its Puritan past (John Harvard, its founder, was a Puritan Minister), nor can Columbia return to its Episcopalian, or Dartmouth and Yale to their Congregational, roots. In fact, today’s Notre Dame cannot even go back to the control of the Congregation of the Holy Cross. Alas, virginity does not grow back. As my father told his Notre Dame Law students, beginning in 1922, “if you take the first bribe, you may as well take the rest.”

Give Us Barabbas!

Juan Donoso Cort├ęs, a nineteenth century Spanish Catholic, writes that “liberalism can survive only in that moment that society decides – Christ, or Barabbas!” As history goes, forty years is the wink of an eye. In embracing with such alacrity the Commanding General of the Culture of Death, has Notre Dame finally declared which side it’s on?

Notre Dame’s president, Father John Jenkins, has gotten tons of mail condemning his decision. The shortest was probably the one from an alumnus faxed sent three words to Jenkins’s office: “Give Us Barabbas!” Jenkins can do better. Al Smith, the Catholic Governor of New York, lost the 1928 presidential election to Herbert Hoover. The Saturday after the election, a priest giving the invocation at a dinner of the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick joked that, after the election, Smith had sent the shortest telegram in history to Pope Pius XI. It contained one word: “Unpack.”

Frosting on the Cake

Father Jenkins has just announced the appointment of a new dean of Notre Dame’s Law School, Ms. Nell Jessup Newton, whose accomplishments include a maximum donation to the presidential campaign of Barack Obama. The law faculty features a number of superb Catholic scholars, but university Provost Thomas Burish made it clear long ago that he, and not they, would choose the new dean. Burish represents the secular-power faction of the faculty. They will not be happy until Hillary Clinton succeeds Father Jenkins.

[The Wanderer, April 2, 2009, p. 3]

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