Pope Francis’ words to the University of Notre Dame might have come as a surprise last week, but his message is both encouraging and challenging to the University,according to many Notre Dame professors and others in the Catholic education community.
Pope Francis told Notre Dame’s trustees and President Father John Jenkins, CSC, to be an “uncompromising witness to the faith” and also had “clear words on freedom, speaking of things we are called to defend, preserve,and advance,” reminds Kathryn Jean Lopez, a syndicated columnist and Cardinal Newman Society board member, in National Review Online. Her article gathers insight on what the Pope’s words mean to those both inside and outside of the University.
Patrick Deneen, a Notre Dame professor of political science who left Georgetown University because he had more hope in Notre Dame’s mission, said that he and others were grateful for the encouraging and hopeful words of Pope Francis, but they also realize the Pope’s challenge to Notre Dame.
Deneen notes that there are “at least two main challenges that we keenly experience on this campus and as a Church as a whole.” The first, he explains, is an “increasingly secular governing elite” running the University. As an example, Deneen relates how the University community received notice of new health identification cards for “women’s preventative services”—that is, free coverage for abortifacients and contraceptives to Notre Dame women—on the same day as Pope Francis’ statement. He states:
While Notre Dame has admirably fought the HHS Mandate in the courts — and was handed down a highly dubious refusal for a stay by Judge Philip Simon of the Seventh Circuit — the University also decided to comply with the Mandate and even officially adopted the deceptive language of “women’s preventive services” in their official missive, contrary to the statements of the Bishops who have decried this misleading euphemism.
The second challenge for the University is for it to use its financial treasure oriented toward the “truth of the Gospels and the salvation of souls” rather than “growth or wealth,” according to Deneen. Just before the Pope’s statement, the University announced plans for a $400 million renovation to the football stadium.
Another professor at Notre Dame, O. Carter Snead, director of the Center for Ethics and Culture and a law professor, thinks Pope Francis’ words refer to Notre Dame's ongoing lawsuit against the HHS mandate. He stated:
It’s clear that the HHS contraceptive/abortifacient mandate threatens to “dilute [Notre Dame’s] indispensable witness” by conscripting its employee and student health plans into serving as the mechanism to facilitate the distribution of drugs and services to which the University objects. Thus, the Holy Father’s words strike me as a timely and profound encouragement to Notre Dame in its continuing efforts to defend its religious liberty in court.
Similar sentiments were offered by Gerard Bradley, also a law professor at Notre Dame, in a separate piece on National Review Online. Bradley suggests that Notre Dame answer some tough questions about its compliance with the HHS mandate. Using the Pope’s language, he describes the Obama administration as one “quarter” that threatens to dilute the University’s “indispensable witness.” He writes:
The mandated “preventive services” (as the University’s own HR department describes them) are being delivered to those who ask for them by a Saint Louis-based pharmaceutical giant called “Express Scripts.” This mega-firm’s relationship to Notre Dame and/or to its third-party provider (Meritain) is not yet apparent. Nor is the funding source behind these mandated free “services” apparent from the federal regulations, which assert that the objecting religious employer is not to be that source without making clear who is. Notre Dame could contribute to its “unambiguous” witness against these immoralities by answering these questions, to the very best of its ability.
Whether or not the University will make any changes after the Pope’s words is uncertain. Father Wilson Miscamble, CSC, a Notre Dame history professor, hopes that the University’s leadership will take the Pope’s words “fully to heart.” However, he’s not so sure that will happen. He states:
The present Notre Dame leadership seems more interested… in making announcements of new buildings than in playing a strong role in defense of the Church’s freedoms. The tepid way in which Notre Dame acquiesced with the Obamacare provisions and authorized its health insurance administrator to implement the HHS Mandate gives notable evidence of that.
Notre Dame is at a “crossroads,” Cardinal Newman Society President Patrick Reilly told Lopez, where it must choose between its current course of compromise and infidelity and its founding mission as a Catholic university. Reilly relates that Pope Francis’ remarks might not have been what the secular media expected, but his words are “significant.” He states:
The media narrative has been that Pope Francis is not so concerned about fidelity to Catholic teaching, and he has had little to say about Catholic education since his installation. So it’s quite significant that he so pointedly calls on Notre Dame to defend its original Catholic mission and to adhere to Catholic moral doctrine, even urging Notre Dame to “missionary discipleship.”
It’s not his style — nor was it that of Pope Benedict or John Paul II — to publicly scold. But in calling a Catholic university to be faithfully and proudly Catholic, it would appear that Pope Francis recognizes what has been lacking at Notre Dame. And the call to resist pressures to secularize “from whatever quarter” seems to acknowledge that such pressures come from within Notre Dame as well as from without.
This sends a clear message to the rest of Catholic colleges, even all Catholic schools: not only is Catholic identity key to authentic Catholic education, but educators are called “to defend it, to preserve it and to advance it!”
Indeed, the president of another Catholic college—Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan.—says that “Catholic identity matters” to Pope Francis and should matter to all Catholic colleges. President Stephen Minnis states:
Pope Francis in his remarks points to a key part of his most recent document where he says, for universities, proclaiming the Gospel message to different cultures also means proclaiming it to cultures in our midst: professionals, the scientific community and academia. He wants universities fully credible and fully Catholic, both.
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