NBC showed a video tribute to the late Father Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, during the Texas game Saturday night. Notre Dame produced the video, which honored Fr. Hesburgh for his service as the longest-tenured president of this university and paid homage to his life of priestly ministry, as well as to his contributions to American higher education, the battle for racial equality, and his advocacy for peace and the elimination of nuclear arms.

The video was the latest in the university’s ongoing “What Would You Fight For?” series.  Now in its ninth season, the series highlights projects of Notre Dame faculty, students, and alumni as they seek to solve the world’s myriad problems.

A scan of the series’ archives reveals that the “What Would You Fight For?” videos over the last two years (to take the most recent sample) tell the world that here at Notre Dame we are fighting: to create economic opportunity; for those touched by cancer; for the ethical use of technology; for global health; to improve trauma care; to explore our universe; to design a better home; to build bridges; for equal education; to protect the sick; to cure prostate cancer.

These are all good things.  The Catholic social tradition emphasizes the preferential option for the poor and the inherent and inalienable dignity of each and every human person.  Christian charity is reflected in works of mercy. These things “worth fighting for” answer the call of the Church to serve those in need and to work to provide more effectively for those who are suffering.

But I wonder whether Notre Dame is fighting for all that it can fight for, or should fight for.  The list of causes celebrated during the football games is uncontroversial.  They would be worth fighting for. But in our world, today, you do not need to.  None of these causes require fighting for, because a fight implies an adversary, and no one would object to the projects Notre Dame is highlighting.  Should not America’s flagship Catholic university be fighting for at least a few things which are unpopular, and perhaps deeply countercultural?

The “What Would You Fight For?” series says a lot about corporeal suffering, and even some sorts of social injustices.  But it does not show that Our Lady’s university fights to relieve spiritual suffering, which is—it seems to me—the highest priority of a Catholic university. Besides, secular universities fight for the same causes which Notre Dame touts during football telecasts.  But if Notre Dame will not stand up and fight for spiritual causes, who will? And who but Notre Dame is graced with the opportunity to do so, so visibly, and so dramatically?

Where is Notre Dame’s distinctively Catholic voice?  Where is Our Lady’s university’s response to the horrible spiritual suffering we see all around us?  Why does Notre Dame seem to want to keep the light that Catholic faith shines on these sufferings under a bushel?

Notre Dame has not fought, in any public and visible way akin to its self-promotion in the “What Would You Fight For?” series, for the unborn; and most recently, for those who are killed and then sold piecemeal by Planned Parenthood.  There are many groups and individuals on this campus devoted to the cause of defending all human life (see the work of the Notre Dame Right to Life club, the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture, and the Office of Human Dignity and Life Initiatives).  Why has the crucially important work of these groups not been featured on NBC?

Notre Dame alumnus and former presidential speechwriter Bill McGurn, in a speech delivered on campus in 2009, bemoaned Notre Dame’s lack of public witness to the cause of the unborn: “Imagine the witness that Notre Dame might provide on a fall afternoon, if millions of Americans who had sat down to watch a football game suddenly found themselves face to face with a Notre Dame professor or student standing up to say, ‘I fight for the unborn.’” Those who suffer spiritually as a result of the practice of abortion—women who elect to abort, their families, abortionists, and those who work in the abortion industry—need such a witness.

Notre Dame has not fought for the truth about marriage and the family.  The university’s mission statement commits our community to the “pursuit and sharing of the truth for its own sake” and to the encouragement of “a way of living consonant with a Christian community.”  This commitment remains intact on paper, but not in practice.  Not only has the university not fought for the truth about marriage, it has by its actions obscured the truth about marriage. The university announced last October, absent coercion from any relevant civil law, that it would extend marriage benefits to employees who declared themselves legally married to a person of the same sex.  This extension of benefits incentivizes the making of a public commitment to be perceived as in a sexual relationship with a person of the same sex—a sexual relationship that the Catholic Church teaches is intrinsically immoral.  By making the extension of benefits conditional on this commitment, the university endorses the decision of some of its employees to persist in an intrinsically immoral relationship.

Such actions are clearly at odds with the encouragement of “a way of living consonant with a Christian community” to which the university claims to be dedicated.  Why not provide a public witness to the truth about marriage, out of compassion for that faithful remnant of dedicated married couples who persevere in their commitments, in season and out of season, and who do the grinding work of raising children in a culture where the highest court in the land tells them that their commitments and life together is no different than that of two men utterly incapable of the marital act and who might attempt to manufacture a child for their own edification, and out of compassion for those inclined to seek a marriage license with a person of the same sex?

If the university did so witness, it would likely present itself as a unique and countercultural institution, offering something that no other (non-Catholic) university could offer.  But the message Notre Dame seeks to send (to potential students, potential donors, and others) is not one of distinctness, but one of likeness.  As George Weigel has recently noted, Catholic universities such as Notre Dame tend to think these days in terms of “preferred peer” schools.  Our preferred peers are schools such as Duke, Stanford, and Princeton, and, for the sake of ranking well in the metrics by which students and alumni judge universities, these schools act as benchmarks for how Notre Dame measures its own success.

Notre Dame, as a Catholic university, should aspire to a different kind of excellence and success.  As Weigel notes, despite their endowments and accomplished faculty, schools such as Duke, Stanford, and Princeton “nonetheless participate in the intellectual incoherence that is the chief hallmark of 21st-century American higher education.” Rather than attempting to be just as “good” as our “preferred peers,” we should aim to be different; that would be a real service to our culture.

Why does Notre Dame not fight against spiritual suffering in our society?  Perhaps it is because the results of these fights are not tangible in the same way that building bridges and designing better homes is.  Perhaps it is because these are controversial causes, ones which lack an overriding consensus in support of them.  Perhaps it is because Notre Dame wants to measure up to its preferred peers and sees some aspects of its Catholic mission as somewhat embarrassing or dangerous to its success in doing so.  Perhaps it is because fighting for these things, witnessing to the fullness of the Catholic faith, requires sacrifice, and those who shape Notre Dame are unwilling to make it.  In failing to fight for these things, a great opportunity to do good is lost.

At the conclusion of the video paying tribute to Fr. Hesburgh, Fr. Jenkins’ states, “Over the years, the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame have asked, ‘What would you fight for?’  In Fr. Hesburgh, the answer is found in the immortal words carved over the portal to the Basilica on the campus he cherished: God, Country, Notre Dame.”

God, Country, Notre Dame.  That may be the closest the video series comes to providing a compelling vision for what we should fight for. It sounds good, but is it lived in practice?  I think not.  A university fighting for God, Country, and Notre Dame (in that order) would not, for example, have honored a president such as Barack Obama at Commencement in May 2009, on account of his radically pro-abortion record.

Whether you prefer the ordering God, Country, Notre Dame, or would like to see instead God, Notre Dame, Country, we all agree on what should be placed first.  What does that ordering look like?  I suggest that instead of turning for example to the Notre Dame that honored President Obama in 2009, we look instead to Saint Thomas More, who, for standing up for the truth about marriage and refusing to violate his conscience was executed by order of Henry VIII, remained always the king’s good servant, but God’s first.

Following such an example, Notre Dame might find the courage not only to continue working on the many good projects that have been highlighted in its “What Would You Fight For?” series, but also to fight for other truths of the Catholic faith, which may not be as popular but remain nonetheless true and vital to the good of persons.

Tim Bradley is a senior studying theology, economics, philosophy, and Constitutional Studies.  He likes soggy watermelon.  Contact him at tbradle5@nd.edu.