Pope Francis received members of the board of Notre Dame University on January 30. One of the most recognizable Catholic institutions of higher learning in the United States, its winning football barnstorms the country and challenges big name institutions such as the University of Michigan and Stanford. Founded in 1842, Notre Dame has long been not only a football powerhouse but an exemplar of the merging of American values and Catholic faith. Pope Francis paid tribute to Notre Dame, which he said “has made an outstanding contribution to the Church in your country through its commitment to the religious education of the young and to serious scholarship inspired by confidence in the harmony of faith and reason in the pursuit of truth and virtue.” Notre Dame is located in South Bend, Indiana.
Notre Dame has been the focus of criticism on the part of some Catholics who fear that the university may have compromised its Catholic identity. For example, Notre Dame awarded President Barack Obama an honorary degree in 2009 when he gave a commencement address at the Indiana-based university. Critics pointed out that Obama has long been a vigorous proponent of abortion, something which flies against long-standing Catholic doctrine.
Pope Francis, in speaking to the Notre Dame delegation at the Vatican, said pointedly,” It is my hope that the University of Notre Dame will continue to offer unambiguous testimony to this aspect of its foundational Catholic identity, especially in the face of efforts, from whatever quarter, to dilute that indispensable witness.”
“The vision which guided Father Edward Sorin and the first religious of the Congregation of Holy Cross in establishing the University of Notre Dame du Lac remains, in the changed circumstances of the twenty-first century, central to the University’s distinctive identity and its service to the Church and American society. In my recent Apostolic Exhortation on the Joy of the Gospel, I stressed the missionary dimension of Christian discipleship, which needs to be evident in the lives of individuals and in the workings of each of the Church’s institutions. This commitment to 'missionary discipleship' ought to be reflected in a special way in Catholic universities, which by their very nature are committed to demonstrating the harmony of faith and reason and the relevance of the Christian message for a full and authentically human life.”
The Pope went on to say that “essential in this regard is the uncompromising witness of Catholic universities to the Church’s moral teaching, and the defense of her freedom, precisely in and through her institutions, to uphold that teaching as authoritatively proclaimed by the Magisterium of her pastors. It is my hope that the University of Notre Dame will continue to offer unambiguous testimony to this aspect of its foundational Catholic identity, especially in the face of efforts, from whatever quarter, to dilute that indispensable witness.”
Responding to news of the visit, Patrick Reilly of the Cardinal Newman Society stated, “Pope Francis has met Notre Dame at a crossroads, where it must choose between its current course of compromise and infidelity and its founding mission as a Catholic university. The Holy Father has clearly called Notre Dame to the better path, as have hundreds of thousands of American Catholics who treasure faithful Catholic education.”
Apropos of Reilly’s remarks, Notre Dame professor Gary Gutting published an opinion piece in the New York Times asking whether Pope Francis might be well advised to alter the Church’s position on abortion. Reilly wrote, “Gutting’s article is outrageous public dissent in the guise of an academic argument. In this, he has no claim to authentic academic freedom: He is outside his field, dabbling in moral theology and lobbying the Pope on a matter of life and death, while directly opposing the Catholic teaching that is essential to Notre Dame’s Catholic identity.”
Some Catholics are upset that Notre Dame decided earlier this month that it would comply with the controversial federal mandate that compels educational institutions, businesses and religious groups to pay for birth control and abortion-causing drugs for their employees. A federal judge recently ruled to deny Notre Dame’s request for relief from the Obama administration mandate. Next, on December 31, a panel of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals denied an emergency motion for a stay, pending an appeal. Notre Dame has decided to accept the Obama administration’s “accommodation,” which ensures employees contraception coverage even over the university’s objection.
“Having been denied a stay, Notre Dame is advising employees that pursuant to the Affordable Care Act, our third party administrator is required to notify plan participants of coverage provided under its contraceptives payment program,” said Paul Browne, Notre Dame’s vice president for public affairs and communications, according to media reports. “As part of an ongoing legal action, however, the program may be terminated once the university’s lawsuit on religious liberty grounds against the HHS mandate has worked its way through the courts.”