Tonight's TV news on NBC drew the world's attention to the fact that Mary Ann Glendon declined Notre Dame's famous Laetare Medal that is given at the commencement exercises in May. By the way, 2009 marks the 126th year of the award. The medal honors the distinguished work of Catholics; once reserved for the laity now also given to the clergy and religious. These events have me thinking about the meaning of these events surrounding the craziness of inviting the US president who stands contrary to Catholic faith and Professor Glendon who is a faithful Catholic to be on the same stage.
It seems to me that when you pan the comments of academics at Catholic colleges and university what you don't see is rhetoric about Christ, faith as a way of knowing, truth, the objectivity of the Church, the intersection of faith and reason, etc. What you will find are comments like: "We don't see a conflict with our Catholic identity if we have a speaker on campus who may have views that are in conflict with Catholic teachings. We consider the contributions the speaker has made to society as a whole, and that doesn't necessarily mean we endorse all of their positions or views. We're committed to a Jesuit tradition, which doesn't suppress educational issues and intellectual debate," said Kristine Maloney, a spokeswoman for the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA. But Ms. Maloney fails to understand that this type of forum gives credence of equality to contrary views to Catholic faith. Obama's speech is a monologue not a dialogue.
Or, let's take the president of Trinity Washington University's Patricia McGuire who reminds us that Catholics have long struggled to get a place of respectability in the market place of ideas and that to blindly follow the bishops would simply be parochial. In her estimation, "The diminishment of the idea of the university by [some critics] betrays two centuries of intellectual advancement and real leadership by Catholic higher education in this nation." Really, I don't think it is narrow-minded to stand with the Church I profess to believe in and follow unto my salvation in Christ.
Let's just take the Jesuit college's perspective since there are far more people memorized by the so-called Jesuit tradition realizing neither the history nor the aim of Jesuit, Catholic education. Let's remember what many faculty members said at the last search for a Holy Cross College president: we don't want a lay person as president because he or she might make the College too Catholic; a Jesuit is freer to allow us to think and act the way we want. Hence, what you see embedded in Ms. Maloney's remarks about the Jesuit intellectual life of the university is true now but historically that same Jesuit intellectual tradition followed Christ unconditionally because it was rooted in the Spiritual Exercises. In fact, contemporary Jesuit apostolates are said to exist "To follow Christ bearing his Cross means announcing his Gospel of hope...." Jesuit institutions stood for faithfulness to the Gospel, to Church teaching and the dignity of the human person. The Jesuit educational apostolate explored the limits of faith and reason but always came back to faith as the mother of virtue and true knowledge. In a former time there was not a capitulation to secular values that divorces Christ from reality, that removes the Church from the public square or merely wants to fit-in at all costs.
I fail to see why fitting-in is a value for academics at Catholic institutions: theirs is a quest for the reasonableness of Truth. Being like the professors in secular universities in my estimation is a failed enterprise and one that has lead away from Jesus Christ as Savior and reality. True to the Ignatian heritage of Jesuit educational institutions it would be good if Holy Cross College and 27 other Jesuit colleges and universities did the Examen according to the mind Saint Ignatius of Loyola asking the Lord for the grace of conversion while attempting to live in "that harmony with the Magisterium which avoids causing confusion and dismay among the People of God" (Benedict XVI to the Jesuits, 2008)
Many US Catholics seem comfortable with beige Catholicism and a theology based on sentiment. There is no arguing otherwise given Notre Dame's honoring of President Obama and now the growing list of "Catholic" institutions of higher learning caving to political pressure and respectability with no significant outcry from the bulk of 60 million Catholics in the US. When encountering Saint Peter at the heavenly gates I hope the academics don't get offended if Saint Peter has a different view on what it means to be a Catholic and to labor at a Catholic higher educational institution. Let's be clear: Christ didn't come to found a Catholic university--He came to bring us to the Father with the distinct claim that He, Christ, is the way, the truth, and the life. Anything short of that is nonsense.
In world where clarity of Catholic faith is "normal" Catholic education would not afraid of differing theological or philosophical positions, especially those that may run contrary to orthodox Catholic teachings; in fact, a Catholic ought to be respectful of what others have to say, always proposing the Gospel and the Church teaching as true and a place of encounter with Christ. Having said this, a platform at a Catholic institution needs to sensitively, yet firmly follow Christ and the teachings of His Church. Clearly, playing footsy with positions contrary to the Church cannot not be presented as equally valid to what the Church holds or teaches!
Let's not grow faint of heart by following Christ and keeping in mind the motto of the Laetare Medal: Magna est veritas et prevalebit (Truth is mighty, and it will prevail).