Notre Dame’s own Fr. Bill Miscamble, C.S.C. offers perspective to larger community

First published at First Things Online edition, 8.3.2020

In late June the University of Notre Dame announced that Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend and sometime 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, had been named a 2020-21 faculty fellow at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study (NDIAS). Meghan Sullivan, a professor of philosophy at Notre Dame and director of the NDIAS, celebrated the appointment: Buttigieg, she said, was a “perfect fit” for the institute’s faculty cohort this year, which will focus on the “nature of trust.” Buttigieg expressed his delight at the chance to examine “one of the most salient issues of our time.” Fortuitously, Buttigieg has whipped off a book on the subject in the four months since his withdrawal from the Democratic race. Trust: America’s Best Chance is scheduled for release on October 6. It promises to consider “the foundational role trust plays in our democracy, and what it will take to build the trust we’ll need to recover and advance the country.” Trust should draw some favorable media attention to Buttigieg in the closing month of the presidential campaign, during which he is sure to present Joe Biden as eminently “trustworthy.” Biden, if elected, will possibly reward Buttigieg with a cabinet appointment—Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, most likely.

The Notre Dame appointment makes good sense for Buttigieg. NDIAS, as a locale for an ambitious political figure awaiting his next appointment, is hardly Harvard’s Kennedy School. Nevertheless, the fellowship gives Buttigieg a respectable holding place while he marks time before his expected move to Washington next January. His participation in the NDIAS seminar on “trust” might even cast some sheen of gravitas on his arguments on the subject. Even better, an appointment at the nation’s best-known Catholic university affords Buttigieg the opportunity to promote both directly and indirectly the issues and positions he outlined during his presidential campaign and to gain some kind of implicit imprimatur for them. 

Buttigieg ran for president on his record as a progressive young technocratic mayor of South Bend—a kind of Midwestern Emmanuel Macron—who pledged to reignite “democracy” in the country. But his proposals to abolish the electoral college and to enlarge the Supreme Court hardly gripped his party’s base. Though talented and quite accomplished for his age, these and other positions might have sent him packing from the campaign trail early on if he had been a heterosexual male with a wife and children—like, say, that other wunderkind of the early primary season, Beto O’Rourke. But Buttigieg gained electoral traction from his public image as a gay man and military veteran who had married his “husband,” Chasten Glezman, in an Episcopal Church ceremony in June 2018. After his surprising success in the Iowa caucuses, some in the effusive media even deemed him a kind of gay Obama. 

While Buttigieg grasped the advantages of serving as a public advertisement for the normalization of same-sex marriage and of advocating for a fulsome LBGTQ agenda, he also appreciated the need to demonstrate his bona fides (if that be the term) on the litmus test issue for every Democrat candidate: unrestricted abortion. This is the issue on which Biden quickly folded under pressure early in the campaign, and so retreated from his long-standing opposition to the use of federal funds to pay for abortions. Today’s Democrats cannot tolerate such opposition; they hold that abortion must be promoted as a public good and funded by the American taxpayer. 

While still mayor of South Bend, Buttigieg skillfully and cynically signaled his support for the pro-abortion movement. He vetoed the South Bend Common Council’s favorable vote on a re-zoning request that would have permitted the highly regarded Women’s Care Center (WCC) to open a crisis pregnancy office next to an abortion facility operating on the west side of the city (near minority neighborhoods, one might add). Buttigieg, the future lecturer on “trust” at Notre Dame, strained credibility by claiming that he acted out of concern for “the neighborhood” when he denied the community the loving support that the WCC has provided for decades. Notre Dame president Father John Jenkins, who had worked amicably with Buttigieg on town-and-gown issues, criticized the veto and charged that “far from enhancing the harmony of the neighborhood, it [Buttigieg’s veto] divides our community and diminishes opportunities for vulnerable women.” 

Most of this year’s Democratic candidates campaigned hard to establish their pro-abortion credentials, but Buttigieg seemed especially eager to please the Planned Parenthood crowd. In a notable exchange with Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life, he made clear that he didn’t see much place for pro-life Democrats in the party. Most egregiously, Buttigieg also engaged in some discussion that revealed his support for late-term, partial-birth abortions. He even attempted to furnish his views with a religious gloss by suggesting that “there’s a lot of parts of the Bible that talk about how life begins with breath.” 

Buttigieg’s extreme pro-abortion views directly oppose fundamental Catholic teaching prohibiting the destruction of human life in the womb. But Meghan Sullivan seems untroubled by this disparity. The present NDIAS director is a capable analytic philosopher and a popular teacher who has fashioned a much-hyped course on “God and the Good Life,” which claims to allow students to wrestle with key questions concerning “happiness, morality and meaning.” She is also an old friend of Buttigieg’s—they were in the same Rhodes Scholarship cohort. She often had him guest lecture in her classes during his mayoral days, and now wants to provide a good place for her pal from their Oxford sojourn. One must assume that her friendship for and desire to assist Buttigieg trumps any concerns about his views on abortion. My own questions as to whether a candidate who held positions contravening the Church’s teaching against racism would warrant an appointment at NDIAS have been met with silence. And Sullivan seems hesitant to examine the implications of Buttigieg’s fellowship for Notre Dame’s mission as a Catholic university.

One might expect that the aforementioned Father Jenkins would be more willing to do so, especially in light of his direct knowledge of Buttigieg’s betrayal of supporters of the Women’s Care Center. Sadly, no. While Father Jenkins concedes that Buttigieg disagrees with Catholic teaching on “some issues,” he asserts that the former mayor might make a contribution to NDIAS deliberations on the nature of trust. Rather than address the issue directly, Father Jenkins prefers to deflect by presenting the Buttigieg appointment as consonant with the recent teaching appointments at Notre Dame of former Senator Joe Donnelly (a Democrat) and former Speaker Paul Ryan (a Republican). Yet there are marked differences: Both Donnelly and Ryan were moving beyond direct involvement in partisan politics and neither injected himself into any current campaign. Most important, though they were of different parties, neither stood so radically in opposition to Catholic moral teaching as does Buttigieg.

Of course, those familiar with Notre Dame know well that the Buttigieg appointment is more of a piece with Jenkins’s honoring of Barack Obama in 2009 and his awarding of the Laetare Medal (recognizing a distinguished Catholic!) to Joe Biden in 2016. It reflects a failure to stand strong for Catholic teaching on marriage and on respect for life and it reveals yet again the university’s willingness to appease the dominant cultural forces of the day. It continues the practice of “kneeling before the world” that characterizes so much of Notre Dame’s cloying effort to win approval within the elite circles of American higher education. 

The Buttigieg appointment illustrates that the university’s leadership has embraced a defective understanding of Notre Dame’s Catholic mission. Anyone can see that the Church suffers from significant challenges in restoring trust after the failure to address the clergy sexual abuse crisis, and a properly constructed course on “trust,” taught by someone with convictions in line with the Catholic faith, could do much good. But that is not what Our Lady’s university has chosen to do.

The Buttigieg case may seem relatively small fry. In these troubled coronavirus times, when there is anxiety over the return to on-campus classes, restrictions on gatherings at the university, and much else, Mr. Buttigieg’s presence is likely to be modest. Even so, his appointment undercuts efforts to provide an integrated intellectual, spiritual, and moral formation for our students. It does nothing to convey where students and scholars at a Catholic university should ultimately put their trust. It is no wonder that there are “troubled hearts” at Notre Dame these days.

Fr. Bill Miscamble, C.S.C., teaches in the History Department and is a member of the Rover’s Faculty Advisory Board. He can be contacted at