How Notre Dame Drifted Away from the Catholic Church

Today, to the disgust and apparent surprise of many Catholic bishops and laity, the University of Notre Dame, once the pride of Catholic intellectual life in America, will behave in a very un-Catholic way by honoring, as commencement speaker and honorary degree recipient, POTUS Barack Obama, one of America's most extreme advocates of abortion.

This surprise is hard to understand. The old Latin proverb nemo repente turpissimus can be translated as "nobody becomes very evil overnight." Even Judas served a lengthy apprenticeship as an embezzler before moving on to greater betrayals. In a similar manner, I contend that the invitation to Obama was merely a milestone of a drift away from the Catholic Church that Notre Dame started decades ago.

How it Happened

One might imagine such a process taking place by external erosion, by a determinedly Catholic faculty being gradually forced to yield to the secular pressures of a materialistic world. On the contrary, I suspect that Notre Dame's decline and fall were caused by internal decay, rather like what Fr. Daniel A. Lord (a famous Catholic pamphleteer of the last century) called "spiritual termites".  There is even evidence that the source of this decay was Notre Dame's own Department of Theology.

The process started a century ago, when the Catholic Church was attacked by a group of internal heresies that Pope Pius X collectively defined as "modernism". This vague and polymorphous movement, which one might call "Catholicism Lite", was a rationalistic reduction of the Bible to mythology and of Catholic doctrine to tentative opinions that could be changed to suit the mood of the times [1].  Pius X attacked modernism within the Church so vigorously that for over half a century, Catholic clergy and schoolteachers had to take an anti-modernist oath. But there was always an underground movement of modernistic liberal theologians, waiting for an opportunity to "bring the Church up to date" [2].

The hopes of these crypto-modernists were revived when Vatican II was convened. Now at last, the Church would set aside its mythological doctrines and, at the very least, abandon its archaic prohibitions against homosexuality, divorce, contraception, and abortion. Or so the secular media predicted and the liberal theologians hoped. But none of these changes took place; Vatican II modified Catholic rituals but left its doctrines and moral code intact

When overt confrontation fails, dissidents usually resort to covert infiltration. Liberal theologians did whatever they could to thwart Pope John-Paul II's efforts to disseminate traditional doctrine. For example, while his monumental and traditional Catechism of the Catholic Church had already become available in most languages and countries, American scholars dragged their feet for years before grudgingly issuing an English translation acceptable to the Vatican.

Simultaneously, liberal seminary officials began discouraging "rigid" conservative aspirants to the priesthood and favoring more "flexible" liberally minded candidates. This weeding out process, described in detail in Michael Rose's Goodbye Good Men produced an overall shortage of priests and tended to bias the crop of future priests toward liberalism [3]. Thus, in imitation of the replication mechanism of viruses, liberal theologians used traditional Catholic institutions to reproduce their own kind and disseminate them throughout the Church.

This underground liberalization movement was apparently successful at Notre Dame. A salient example was the enthusiasm with which radically liberal Jesuit theologian Michael J. Himes (he doesn't like to be called "father") was received when he gave a series of lectures and workshops while a member of Notre Dame's Department of Theology in 1987. These lectures were eventually published as a book called Doing the Truth in Love, which included an enthusiastic back-cover endorsement by ND's president emeritus Fr. Theodore Hesburgh. Consider the following excerpts, which I assure you were not invidiously taken out of context:

"Our Father in Heaven doesn't especially care whether you are good or wicked or whether you are just or unjust."  [p. 11]

"And astonishingly, not once does Jesus tell his disciples to love God."  [p. 18]

" religious motive is the basis for the last judgment.   Not only are specific religious acts beside the point, so are specifically religious motives."  [p. 51]

"God loves this book as much as he loves you or me; otherwise it would not exist."  [p. 102]

"Indeed, treating these formulas as the operative elements of the sacraments would reduce sacraments to magic-as long as you say the right words, poof!"  [p. 100] 

"That is not what Christianity is about at all.  We do not claim that there is a being 'out there'" [p. 18]

"God is not another person out there."  [p. 55]

"There is no all-wise, all-powerful person named God who has a plan for us..."  [p. 55] 

Whatever else can be said about these remarkable statements, they blatantly contradict what the Catholic Church has been teaching for the past two thousand years. Himes' quasi-pantheistic philosophy cannot be called Christian, let alone Catholic. I contend that the fact that Himes was received at all at Notre Dame testifies to the extremely liberal bias of its religious faculty twenty years ago.

This conclusion is corroborated by the increasingly liberal tone of the articles in Notre Dame, the university's alumni magazine, whose literacy and elegant format would seem to qualify it as a reliable thermometer of the intellectual climate at the University through the years. As we headed into the new millennium, the more devout alumni became increasingly disturbed by some of its contents, such as article from a nun deploring the prohibition of condoms and a faculty member's essay on why we should have a ‘broader viewpoint' about abortion. 

A sort of milestone was reached in the Summer 2004 issue, whose cover showed two Picassoesque male faces with the title "The Love that Dare Not Speak Its Name". Although this special issue on homosexuality did include a brief and vague article on "What the Church Has to Say", the general tone, in defiance of official and traditional catholic teaching [4], was a sympathetic total acceptance of this "alternative lifestyle".

A few outsiders began to notice Notre Dame's deviations.  In 2003, in The New Anti-Catholicism, Episcopalian historian Philip Jenkins wrote:

"Even Notre Dame, long the preeminent school of American Catholicism, became a haven for liberal dissidence."

But on the whole, the public and the Catholic hierarchy still thought that Notre Dame was truly Catholic. What fooled them was the absence of visible change. The external rituals and campus life remained essentially the same [5]. It was only when you talked to a recent Notre Dame graduate that the change became apparent-so much so that by 2000, Notre Dame had become a sort of bitter joke among perceptive Catholic laymen.

The response of Notre Dame's officials to criticism of their liberal tendencies was generally the equivalent of an arrogant shrug. Nothing had changed, Himes was perfectly orthodox, complaints about Himes were compared to the persecution of Galileo, Notre Dame was highly regarded by the Vatican and numerous cardinals, etc. [6].

And they might well have felt secure from criticism. Aside from a few conservative and pro-life groups, no one criticized Notre Dame's liberal leanings and the Catholic hierarchy was apparently oblivious or indifferent. Even as recently as last month, in defiance of Catholic doctrine and tradition, Notre Dame celebrated Easter Week as a blatantly pro-gay-rights "StaND against Hate Week" which incurred virtually no publicity or protest. It seemed as if ND could drift as far from the Church as it wished with impunity.

The Last Straw?

So, with a majority of Catholics and Notre Dame students having voted for Obama, inviting the POTUS to the 2009 commencement seemed like a safe and harmless move. It might even result in some lavish federal grants by the sort of mutual back-scratching (known as the "Chicago Way") that Obama has been trained in. A few pro-lifers or conservatives would protest but they would be ignored by the media and soon forgotten.  

Then the protests flooded in. 68 of the 273 American bishops protested and/or boycotted the event. The announced Laetare Medalist, law professor and former ambassador Mary Ann Glendon, refused the award in protest [7]. Newspapers gave feature coverage of the protests and even cartoonists satirized the irony of the event. Alumni pledged to rescind over $8,000,000 in donations. A coalition of eleven student groups, called ND Response, organized a program of on-campus protests to coincide with the commencement.  Even the public tide has turned, a majority now disapproving of Notre Dame's action. Notre Dame President Jenkins and his advisors must be wondering what hit them.

And we might wonder too. Considering the notorious indifference of most lay Catholics about abortion and the equally notorious pusillanimity of U.S. bishops, what has caused this sudden surge of resentment? It isn't because of the Catholic laity as a whole; according to a recent poll, a majority of American Catholics don't know, don't care, or don't disapprove of the Obama invitation.

One possibility, unfortunately a likely one, is that this is just a flash in the pan. The commencement and the protests will be over, the bishops will take no further action, the incident will be forgotten, pro-abortion politicians will have been reassured that they have noting to fear from the Catholic vote, and Notre Dame will go on as before.

A second possibility is that we may really have reached one of Malcolm Gladwell's "tipping points" [8], like the Boston Tea Party. The Obama invitation might be perceived as Notre Dame spitting in the face of the pro-life movement, Catholic voters might finally have become fed up with being manipulated, and Notre Dame may become widely regarded as a "formerly Catholic" university, just as Harvard was originally a Puritan college.

The third possibility is based on those 68 protesting bishops and cardinals. That's an unexpectedly high percentage and suggests the possibility of collaboration or even coercion. Perhaps somebody from the Vatican made a few phone calls. We must remember that the elevation of ultraconservative Benedict XVI to the papacy was an unexpected disaster for liberal Catholics. Perhaps the new pope will turn out to be as militantly anti-modernist as Pius X. Perhaps the Vatican will actually implement its previously expressed intention to set standards for certifying truly "Catholic" colleges and universities. (In view of the lamentable speed with which students at Catholic colleges abandon their faith, such a move is long overdue.) We can only have the audacity to hope that this will someday happen.

The Plight of Catholic Parents

But for now, what are devout Catholic parents with children approaching college age going to do? Several have already blogged that Notre Dame has been scratched off their list. But where will they go?

Notre Dame is by no means the only case of "liberal drift". Most of the Jesuit colleges have drifted at least as far from Catholicism. In 1993, a dean in a prominent Jesuit university told me, "Oh, yes, we're Catholic-if you consider 'Jesuit' to be 'Catholic'." Since then, magazines like the New Oxford Review and websites like that of the Cardinal Newman Society have described numerous cases of modernist hijackings of Catholic colleges.

Conservative Catholic scholars like Alice von Hildebrand have pointed out that there are still some American colleges that are truly Catholic, e.g. the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Thomas Aquinas College and Campion College in California, Thomas More Institute and Magdalen College in New Hampshire, etc. But these are mostly small and obscure liberal arts colleges that are hardly suitable springboards for getting into Harvard Law School, which now seems to be a prerequisite for high public office [9].

I have no recommendations for these parents except to be very careful. They must try to avoid the heartbreaking tragedy of the devout Catholic parents who scrimped and saved to send their children to what they thought was a Catholic university, only to find that it so undermined their children's faith that they soon left the Church altogether. It is for their sake that, with a heavy heart, I sat down to write this article.


[1] Modernism was one of the many rationalistic movements in the last two centuries whose common goal was to bring Christianity up to date by brushing aside the cobwebs of theology and getting down to the nitty-gritty of social reform and universal brotherhood. The trouble is that the doctrines of a religion or social movement are like the bones of the skeleton of an animal: they seem dead and useless but when you remove them, the whole organism collapses and putrefies. Thus the universal fraternity of the French Revolution led to the Reign of Terror, the dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia led to mass starvation and the gulag, the benevolent eugenics of German doctors and psychiatrists in the 1920's led to the gas chambers of Auschwitz-and modernist liberal Catholicism leads to the casual acceptance of over 60,000,000 abortions.

[2] Throughout this era, Notre Dame remained staunchly and solidly Catholic. I can personally testify that circa 1950, life at Notre Dame was pervaded by a healthy and genuine Catholic spirituality, founded on a sound and traditional theology. 

[3] Coincidentally, according to Rose, liberal novice masters tended to favor candidates with a latent or even overt homosexuality that in some cases eventually degenerated into pedophilia

[4] The Catholic position on homosexuality, as set forth in documents like the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is that homosexual acts and lifestyles are to be abhorred as sinful but that people with homosexual tendencies are to be treated with compassion and sympathy as sufferers from a disease.

[5] I would guess that to this day, campus life at Notre Dame is still pervaded with Catholic influences and that there are still individuals and student/faculty groups that are genuinely and even intensely Catholic. But these favorable influences are undermined and counteracted by modernist influences, e.g. of the "damn with faint praise" sort, that tend to eventually destroy a student's faith.

[6] These were the sort of responses that I received from Fr. Hesburgh and Fr. William Seetch, spiritual director of the C.S.C. community, in replies to my letters of complaint in 2004.

[7] Paradoxically, her action proved how much she deserved that medal.

[8] Engineering dynamicists will recognize that these two possibilities are end members of a continuum and that the boundaries between transient, oscillatory, and catastrophic instability are hard to predict. If the truth lies between these two extremes, Notre Dame may survive unchanged but suffer a permanent loss of prestige.

[9] There is no Catholic Institute of Technology-but there could and should be.

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