I approached God Quad on a sunny spring day in 2011, my family trailing a few steps behind me, trying to keep up. The foliage was starting to blossom, but my eyes were focused only on the Golden Dome up ahead. I was a junior in high school, and this was my first time setting foot on a campus I had longed to be part of for nearly my entire life.
When I finally saw campus in person, what long had been a child’s dream became a reality. The beauty of the place enchanted me, but I also got a strong sense that Notre Dame was, at its core, a Catholic place. I wasn’t naïve about the fact that the school was drifting away from its Catholic identity toward a breed of university like that of Georgetown or Boston College, but after my visit, I didn’t want to abandon this university I had always loved. I wanted to be part of the fight to reclaim it.
Now, nearly five years after first stepping onto campus, I’ve been able to work on projects crucial to the university’s Catholic identity. But it would be a lie to say that what I have experienced in my work at Notre Dame hasn’t, in some way, tarnished the image I used to have of the university. I wish I could recapture the innocent wonder and joy I felt when I first saw the Golden Dome. These days, when I pass Main Building, I grumble about the decisions made inside by university administrators, decisions that so often contradict our Catholic mission.
Decisions such as the recent one made to honor Joe Biden with the Laetare Medal, an honor “presented annually to an American Catholic in recognition of outstanding service to the Church and society.” Though former Speaker of the House John Boehner will also receive a medal, there is little doubt that this is a calculated move to advance Notre Dame’s prestige in the eyes of the world at the expense of our Catholic principles.
After Roe v. Wade, Biden quickly fell in line with Catholic Democrats like Ted Kennedy and Mario Cuomo asserting that, though he was personally against abortion, he would not work to change the law. As vice president, Biden told the Chinese government that he “understands” its one-child policy, which leads to nearly 13 million forced abortions each year. He consistently has supported same-sex marriage and advocated for a Supreme Court decision to establish a constitutional right to such unions. He supports the HHS contraceptive mandate and has falsely claimed that it doesn’t violate the religious liberty of Catholic institutions.
In addition, Biden spearheaded the Senate Democrats’ successful attempt to defame Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, almost entirely because Bork likely would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. Had Biden not grossly misrepresented Bork’s record and attacked his character, Anthony Kennedy would not have been appointed in Bork’s place, and the Court almost surely would have overturned Roe in Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992.
The idea that my university—which consistently attempts to portray itself as our country’s preeminent Catholic university—would honor this man with any award is abhorrent, let alone an award given explicitly for his “outstanding service to the Church.”
And yet, despite this latest appalling decision by the university administration, I refuse to give up hope. Notre Dame never again will be the bastion of Catholicism that it once was for marginalized Irish Catholics in this country, but we fight for Notre Dame and cry over her missteps because there is something irreplaceable here, something that we should never abandon.
Much has been written about the work done by groups like Right to Life, the Center for Ethics and Culture, the Identity Project, Students for Child-Oriented Policy, and the Rover. These and other groups certainly are a cause for hope, but they are not the only light I see here. I believe there is something intrinsic to Notre Dame that will always be Catholic.
Notre Dame alumni from the classes of 2012 and 1952 feel the same love for their university, and any two graduates, even if separated by decades, will undoubtedly ask each other about their dorm immediately upon being introduced and bond over stories about campus life. Our university is famous for opening doors to recent graduates by connecting them with alumni who help or hire them because they walked the same sidewalks and the same halls.
“Subway alumni,” men and women with no connection to Notre Dame, root for us all across the country because we represent Catholicism in a nation that once was virulently anti-Irish and anti-Catholic. Thousands of visitors flock to campus for home football games, reconnecting with family and old friends and processing from the Stadium to the Basilica when the fourth quarter ends. During the Alma Mater, eyes well up and hearts are filled with pride for Notre Dame, win or lose.
The Grotto is filled most days with people lighting candles in the hopes that Our Lady will hear their prayers. Students of all faith traditions gather at the Grotto after the death of a student to pray decades of the Rosary for the soul of the departed. Many professors begin their classes with a prayer, and a crucifix hangs in each classroom and many dorm rooms on campus.
It can be tempting for those of us who fight for Notre Dame’s Catholic identity to become so absorbed in poor leadership decisions that we forget the reason we care about the fight at all: our university was meant to be, and still is, one of the most powerful means for good in this country. And though I’ll be the first to say that Notre Dame isn’t living up to this ideal perfectly, it’s wrong to overlook the good that does take place here.
In every dorm and in many other campus buildings, you’ll find a chapel, and inside, even when all the other lights are out, a small candle flickers in the sanctuary lamp beside the tabernacle. God is present here, and students can reach out for Him in a way that isn’t possible at any other major university. Despite the mistakes our administration makes, something incredible is taking place at Notre Dame, and until they tear down the Grotto or do away with the Alma Mater, pull Our Blessed Mother from the top of the dome or rip the tabernacles out of every campus building, I will continue to fight, and I invite you to join me.
Alexandra DeSanctis is a senior political science major. Email her at email@example.com.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that Mario Cuomo had received Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal in 1984. This is not true. Cuomo did, however, give a famous address at Notre Dame’s 1984 Commencement about being a Catholic in public life.