The following interview with Notre Dame history professor Fr. Bill Miscamble, CSC, was conducted by Kathryn Jean Lopez and appeared on the National Catholic Register’s website (ncregister.com). It is reprinted here with permission.
Has Notre Dame moved beyond the scandal of Barack Obama being honored there?
It certainly has not. Notre Dame’s honoring of a president who is deeply committed to the terrible abortion regime which prevails in the United States today damaged its reputation and credibility as a Catholic university. It strained the university’s relationship with the institutional Church. You would recall that the president’s visit brought forth criticism of Notre Dame from over 80 bishops, from literally thousands of Notre Dame alumni, and from hundreds of thousands of committed Catholic folk who love Notre Dame and expected more from her. Notre Dame is still struggling to overcome the harm done. While it has undertaken some “damage limitation” measures, it certainly has not regained its previous treasured place in American Catholic life. Notre Dame’s reputation as a Catholic university is still in need of repair.
Is Notre Dame in anyway “unambiguously pro-life,” as the school’s president said it was at the time?
At the time of the Obama visit, there was little of substance for Father John Jenkins to point to in order to back up his claim that Notre Dame was “unambiguously pro-life.” In fact, Notre Dame, like many of the so-called leading Catholic universities, largely distanced herself from pro-life endeavors. Instead of being an institutional bastion of support and sustenance for the pro-life movement, it was more likely to seem embarrassed to be associated with the most important moral cause of our time. The pro-life efforts on campus were carried by the students in the Right to Life club and by a number of courageous faculty. Ironically, the Obama visit pushed the Notre Dame administration into a “damage limitation” mode and forced it to take some measures to give some real meaning to the claim that the university was “unambiguously pro-life.” We should be grateful for these measures, but should not overstate them. The main pro-life efforts on campus continue to be those pushed by the students and by those faculty associated with the Center for Ethics and Culture, some terrific folk in our law school, and the Faculty for Life group.
If Notre Dame is truly going to be “unambiguously pro-life,” it needs to pursue a much stronger effort to support and sustain the pro-life cause. It should proudly be an institution dedicated to training a new generation of pro-life leaders. It must give strong institutional support to the efforts of Project Guadalupe. It should assure that her students leave more likely to be pro-life than when they enter, which is not the case presently. The institution should do something more to support pregnant students in need, such as is being done through the Room at the Inn organization associated with Belmont Abbey College. Surely, the university leadership should overcome its timidity and speak up forcefully for life in the public domain.
Why would anyone allow the Roxanna Martino mess to have happened? And it is adequately described as a “mess,” isn’t it?
Some of your readers may be unfamiliar with what you rightly describe as the “Roxanne Martino mess,” but the basic details are these: The fellows of Notre Dame recently elected to the board of trustees Roxanne Martino, a Chicago businesswoman and ND alumna who has given over $25,000 to the pro-abortion PAC Emily’s List. Ms. Martino also donated to a group largely dedicated to advancing abortion rights, the Illinois State Personal PAC. Clearly, there was a significant failure made in the vetting of Mrs. Martino. But instead of a quick and honest admission of the mistake and a request for her to stand down, Father Jenkins and the board chair, Mr. Richard Notebaert, sought to defend Mrs. Martino, claiming that she was simply unaware of the purposes of Emily’s List. That pathetic explanation could not withstand scrutiny, and, eventually, Mrs. Martino decided to stand down.
In some ways, this matter is more important than the Obama fiasco for what it means for the future of Notre Dame, for both Mr. Notebaert and Father Jenkins appeared willing to allow a significant donor to “pro-choice” organizations to hold a seat on the board which sets the policies and broad direction for the university. This “mess” has raised, for me, substantial questions about the suitability of Mr. Notebaert to lead the Notre Dame board. He emerged as the main defender of Mrs. Martino and seemed to supplant Father Jenkins in determining university policy on the matter. He appeared not to understand the damage that an appointment like this would do to Notre Dame’s standing as a Catholic university. He offered a quite misleading statement on the matter and has offered no apology for either his apparent dissembling or his failure to vet this appointment with appropriate diligence. He has yet to give an assurance that contributing in any way to explicitly “pro-choice” organizations is incompatible with service on the Notre Dame board of trustees. One hopes that a future meeting of the Notre Dame board of trustees will vote to provide this assurance.
There have been some terrific developments since President Obama was on campus. There is the impressive Fund to Protect Human Life, and you lead a chapter of University Faculty for Life. Notre Dame’s participation in the March for Life has increased. And from the administration, too: There is now an Office of Life Initiatives and an alumni office for the same, among other things. Are these just for show, or real steps in the right direction?
You are right to say that there have been some important developments on campus following the Obama visit. The ND administration’s measures have been steps in the right direction. A firm commitment has been made not to engage in embryonic stem-cell research. The Office of Life Initiatives and the Alumni Association’s life initiatives coordinator are doing valuable work. Father Jenkins joined a considerably larger faculty group in the March for Life in both 2010 and 2011.
Yet, while I commend these measures, it is clear that the major pro-life initiatives on campus still rest with groups that don’t have serious administration support, such as the Center for Ethics and Culture and the Notre Dame Fund to Protect Human Life, both of which are led by professor David Solomon. We will know the administration is really serious about supporting the pro-life effort at Notre Dame when they offer such initiatives full support. This is not the case at the moment. Quite the opposite. In fact, there is an effort afoot to force David Solomon from his directorship of the Center for Ethics and Culture — just as he is getting Project Guadalupe firmly established. This makes no sense for an institution supposedly committed to supporting the pro-life cause.
The future of Project Guadalupe is in jeopardy, isn’t it? How could that be, and how can there be a solution? Peace talks between the fund and the administration?
I am so glad you came to Notre Dame to see just part of our overall Project Guadalupe. You came to the very successful Notre Dame Vita Institute, which is an intensive two-week summer academic program dedicated to educating participants about fundamental human-life issues. The 25 initial participants were terrific, as you saw, and we trust that what they gained at the Vita Institute will aid them in their respective and important work. The Vita Institute is a key stage of the overall project, but it is linked to pro-life curriculum development and (we hope) an interdisciplinary master’s program.
These efforts aim to ensure that Notre Dame plays a crucial role in forming the next generation of pro-life leaders. This endeavor is off and running, and yet the administration seems determined to choke it in infancy by forcing out the person who has designed it and brought it into being — namely David Solomon.
You ask, “How can there be a solution?” The answer is rather simple. There is no need for “peace talks.” Instead, the administration should give this effort its enthusiastic support, including allowing the employment of appropriate staff. That is what an “unambiguously pro-life institution” should and must do. How the administration acts on this matter over the coming year will reveal much about the kind of institution Notre Dame is and plans to be.
Has David Solomon been the victim of retaliation? Can that be fixed?
David Solomon had the courage to speak in opposition to Notre Dame’s honoring of President Obama. This stance certainly seems to have led to recriminations against him. Already, one effort was made to oust him from his directorship of the Center for Ethics and Culture (CEC), but this was foiled because of fear of bad publicity for Notre Dame. But the administration seems determined to move him on without any concern for the damage that would do to the important work of the CEC. In doing so, the administration is removing the person whose great pro-life work was recently recognized by the national University Faculty for Life organization with its annual Smith Award. The administration seems to want to neuter the person who has been the leader of our pro-life efforts at Notre Dame. It is little short of a disgrace.
We need a firm statement from the administration that David Solomon will continue in his duties until all stages of Project Guadalupe are up and running. Notre Dame should be a place that appreciates and celebrates all that he has done and is doing.
Who are the ND 88, and what is their status? Did something go very wrong there?
The ND 88 are the pro-life demonstrators arrested at the time of the Obama fiasco and charged with criminal trespass. The group included priests and nuns, notables like Norma McCorvey (the “Roe” of Roe v. Wade), but mostly just ordinary folk. While in the past Notre Dame had not pressed to prosecute pro-gay and anti-military trespassers arrested in similar circumstances on campus, in this instance, the university refused to request that the prosecutions be dropped. It was a strange and mean action, and hardly that of an institution wanting to re-establish its pro-life credentials.
Fortunately, the ND 88 had excellent legal representation, and they indicated their intention to sue the university for discriminatory arrest. In this circumstance, Notre Dame prudently agreed to ask the prosecutor to dismiss the trespass charges, which he promptly did. This is something that should have been done at the outset, and a painful episode [would have been] avoided. That it wasn’t reflects very poorly on Notre Dame and on the judgment of those who guided the university’s decisions on this matter.
What’s wrong with Notre Dame?
Let me approach this question by saying that Notre Dame is a place that is not clear about its mission and identity. There is a debate here as to whether it will be a Catholic university at its heart or just in a peripheral way. That Notre Dame is not sure what foundational document will guide its present and future is the source of many of our problems.
For example, Mr. Notebaert seems to think that the Land O’Lakes Statement, with its strictures for complete institutional autonomy from the Church, should serve this role. This is a disastrous course, and one that pushes us further down the road to the marginalization of religion and, ultimately, to secularization. This is the course that asks us to ape and mirror the secular schools that lie ahead of us in the U.S. News and World Report rankings.
The alternate course is the one offered by John Paul II’s EX CORDE ECCLESIAE and which is already incorporated into Notre Dame’s Mission Statement. Thus, our mission statement reads: “A Catholic university draws its basic inspiration from Jesus Christ as the source of wisdom and from the conviction that in him all things can be brought to their completion. As a Catholic university, Notre Dame wishes to contribute to this educational mission.”
The debate between these two versions is occurring right now. How this contest gets worked out in practice will determine the future of Notre Dame. Will we merely settle for a Catholic “gloss” on or around Notre Dame? This is what my colleague from the philosophy department, Fred Freddoso, referred to when he suggested Notre Dame might be “a public school in a Catholic neighborhood.” This would mean that the central academic project would not be guided by Catholic principles or by the call of Christ. That this sad prospect is even a possibility indicates the parlous circumstance in which Notre Dame finds itself. Regrettably, much of this is due to the deterioration in the Catholic composition of the faculty over the past decades.
Let me simply suggest that the fraying of its Catholic identity and the inability of the university to meet its declared objective of having a predominant number of committed Catholics on its faculty are the sources of many of our major problems.
Is “prestige over truth,” as Bishop John D’Arcy put it, a deep-rooted problem?
Bishop John D’Arcy, the great bishop emeritus of our diocese, who so loves Notre Dame, said it well when he noted that Notre Dame chose “prestige over truth” in inviting President Obama. It was embarrassing for an institution dedicated to the pursuit of truth to settle for temporary attention over eternal honor.
But the issue goes beyond the one case, as your question correctly implies. It ties into the desire of some to have Notre Dame conform fully to the reigning secular education model and to impress the supposed elite institutions of American higher education with our accomplishments.
Hence, there is an obsession with ratings, whatever their real meaning, and with image, whatever the substance. There is a wish to be recognized by bodies like the American Association of Universities and so forth, which supposedly will bring us “prestige.” It is a dangerously misguided path.
What’s right with Notre Dame?
Ah, this is a much more pleasant question to answer. There are many positive developments occurring at Notre Dame. Some good teaching occurs, and good scholarship is undertaken. There are some terrific faculty members — Catholic and non-Catholic alike, I must add — who are deeply committed to Notre Dame’s true mission, but we need more of them. We are home to some wonderful initiatives, like the Alliance for Catholic Education, which can truly benefit the Church and society.
We are fortunate to have fine students attend here, and most of them benefit from their time with us. We have loyal alumni and friends who want Notre Dame to be its best self. Notre Dame also still has the continuing involvement and commitment of its founding religious community, the Congregation of Holy Cross. This is crucial, whatever the order’s limitations in guiding the school in recent years. In a more general sense, the university has the notable resources of the rich, if somewhat neglected, Catholic intellectual tradition to draw upon.
In the end, there is surely enough ‘right’ that Notre Dame can recover from the fraying of its Catholic identity that I noted above. Sadly, not every major Catholic university can have that said of them, which, let me add, gives me no pleasure whatsoever. I want all major Catholic universities to work to restore their Catholic identities.
What do you love most about Notre Dame?
I will answer this in a personal way. I first arrived here to begin graduate studies in 1976. I studied for the priesthood here and was ordained here in Sacred Heart Basilica. I have been teaching here as a priest in Holy Cross for a quarter of a century. Occasionally, other possibilities have been put to me, but I can’t imagine teaching anywhere else. I love the place — not just what it is, but what it can be.
My blood, dare I say it, is in the bricks. I am very grateful that at Notre Dame I have had the opportunity to serve as a priest-teacher and scholar and to engage my students and to search with them for what really matters in life and beyond. I love saying Mass on campus, especially in the chapels of the residence halls. I love presiding at weddings of my former students and friends, both on campus and away from it. It’s a great place to be a priest. Of course, I love the beauty of the campus, although, increasingly, less so during the wintertime. I could go on — the basilica, the Lady on the Dome, the grotto, the crucifix in the Moreau Seminary Chapel. But enough — will anyone still be reading this?
You speak frankly about the identity of Notre Dame. Are you personally afraid of retaliation?
I’m not afraid of retaliation in any serious way. I get an occasional cold shoulder, but it is barely worth mentioning. Nonetheless, I regret to say that retaliation cannot be ruled out for faculty and staff at Notre Dame who raise their voices against the administration. One would be naive to do so, given the dismissal of Bill Kirk last year after his 20-plus years of devoted and exemplary service to Notre Dame. Additionally, this dismissal was carried out in a callous way (the “Here is a cardboard box. Please clean out your desk” technique). It had a chilling impact on the willingness of folks who labor without the benefit of tenure to make public their deeply held pro-life convictions and principles.
You’re a Holy Cross priest living at Notre Dame. Given your protests of some of what Father Jenkins has done as president, is it hard to live in community there?
I haven’t found it hard to live in community, but I was told my presence in the university community would make life difficult for others. But I am very fortunate to live in the Moreau Seminary community, where the priests, brothers and seminarians treat me as a true confrere, and I do my best to reciprocate.
What should alumni who love Notre Dame as a Catholic institution of higher learning and want it to truly be “unambiguously pro-life” be doing, saying and supporting?
This is a very important question. ND alums must stay involved with Notre Dame. I know some good folk get so disappointed with the school that they are tempted to break ties with it. This is a foolish course — and a recipe for defeat for all that is best about Notre Dame. Notre Dame alums must recognize the crucial issues involved and keep working and pressuring the university to adopt firmly the Ex Corde Ecclesiae model. One of the truly beneficial things to come out of the Obama visit, however, was that it revealed that dedicated alumni/alumnae would neither be cowed by the administration nor would they swallow the nonsensical “spin” about “dialogue” put out by Father Jenkins. Alums must continue to make their views know to the administration.
I especially encourage alums to keep informed about developments at Notre Dame by subscribing to the Sycamore Trust bulletins. Bill Dempsey and his colleagues at Sycamore have done a great job of promoting the Catholic character and mission of Notre Dame by providing a sustained and deeply thoughtful monitoring of events there.
Furthermore, alumni/alumnae should contribute financially to the university in areas that support its Catholic identity and its pro-life mission.
Is football too much of a priority at Notre Dame?
I am an Australian. I like sport, and I have grown to love Notre Dame football; although, I confess, I still have a deeper love for Rugby League. I was present at Notre Dame for the 1977 and 1988 National Championships, and I want to see us add to our list [of championships]. I have no time at all for those who would like to see us “follow the Ivy League” and “downgrade” football. This is nonsense and reflects a total lack of understanding of the important place of football in Notre Dame’s tradition. But we must be careful to do football right. We must have proper academic and personal standards for our players and ask our coaches to act with integrity. We have to resist some of the corporate temptations that so beset college sports, especially football.
Is Notre Dame important to the Catholic Church in America? Why?
Notre Dame can be important for the Catholic Church in America, but it assuredly won’t be if it simply conforms to the reigning secular-education model. There are already plenty of schools where intellect has managed to detach itself from morality. Who will care about Notre Dame if it is merely a Duke or Northwestern “wannabee”?
Notre Dame has to be a place that unabashedly pursues the truth in these challenging times. It has to be a place that offers not only intellectual, but also moral and spiritual, formation. It must distinguish itself by offering an education that aids its students (and faculty) to be not only smart but good. It should be a place where young men and women of our day can come and ask: “Teacher, what must I do to have eternal life?” and not be laughed at and dismissed. Notre Dame must strive to be “different,” because it is a place where faith and reason (to quote Blessed John Paul) “are like two wings on which the human spirit rise to the contemplation of the truth.”
If Notre Dame lives out this vision, it will surely play a part in the revitalization of the Church in the U.S. that is taking place right now. The university could truly serve the Church far beyond what it is doing.