When Catholic Schools Stop Being Catholic


Published: April 30, 2009

About a month ago, I noticed a Facebook status update from my sister-in-law, a recent graduate of Notre Dame. It read, “Kelly Lee is disappointed in Notre Dame. A university named after of Our Lady should fight for its Catholic character, not fight against it.” I was curious as to what this could be referring to, but then I noticed that, underneath the status, there was a notification that said Kelly had joined a group called “Protest Obama as Notre Dame’s 2009 Commencement Speaker.” After I learned more about Notre Dame’s plans to have Obama deliver the commencement address, I immediately took advantage of the then-new “like” feature on Facebook and I “liked” Kelly’s status.

I was peeved. As of late, Catholic colleges have disappointed in their efforts to uphold a Catholic identity. In 1990, Pope John Paul II released the Apostolic constitution, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, which was meant to serve as a guide for universities self-described as “Catholic” in strengthening their Catholic identity. Recently, there have been a number of stories in the Observer questioning Fordham’s Catholic identity. Last semester, I wrote a story criticizing Fordham Law School’s decision to present Justice Steven Breyer with the Fordham-Stein Ethics award, as well as other disappointing decisions made lately by Catholic universities. In general, Catholic colleges seem to have been ignoring Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

The first concern of a Catholic university should not be to attempt to appeal to the political persuasions of the masses, but to remain explicitly Catholic by making decisions, both public and private, that reflect Catholic morality. Just as all Catholics are called to defend human life, so too are Catholic universities. Just because Catholic universities must exist in the secular sphere doesn’t mean that they can disregard the fundamentals of Catholic morality.

While I acknowledge that Obama is an exceptionally inspirational figure for today’s youth and that he has been commended for his public speaking ability, I also know that he is vocally supportive of abortion rights as well as embryonic stem cell research. Obama is certainly entitled to his opinions about human life issues, regardless of how adamantly I disagree with him. His opinions on these issues, however, in no way align with Catholic morality—the same morality that Catholic schools like Notre Dame have the responsibility to uphold.

Surely Notre Dame is aware of Obama’s decidedly un-Catholic positions on these important life issues. Surely Notre Dame is aware that, by inviting Obama to represent the school (not to mention by presenting him with an honorary doctorate of law), they are making a public statement that mass appeal is more important to them than upholding Catholic morality.

A commencement address is the culmination of a college education and is supposed to be one of the most important college memories. While listening to it, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll feel a surge of pride in yourself and your school, and you might end up feeling a little more confident in your future. The commencement address is the school’s last chance to impart wisdom on its graduates, and it does this by proxy through an individual who holds its values. How can a commencement speaker impart such wisdom when his own standards of morality don’t jibe with those of the school?

As someone who takes issues of life very seriously, I’m personally offended by Notre Dame’s decision. Like Kelly said, Notre Dame is named for Our Lady, the Mother of the World and the defender of the most vulnerable. Notre Dame’s decision is a slap in Our Lady’s face. But if these issues are not high on your priority list, or even if you are pro-choice, you must be able to recognize how inconsistent Notre Dame’s decision is. Ex Corde Ecclesiae states that a Catholic University must maintain “fidelity to the Christian message as it comes to us through the Church.” It goes on to say that, “in a Catholic University… Catholic ideals, attitudes and principles penetrate and inform university activities.” It doesn’t appear as if Catholic ideals, attitudes and principles are going to be emanating from this important university activity: the 2009 Commencement Address.