"Touchdown Jesus!" at the University of Notre Dame

My friends,

Once again, with the decision of Notre Dame University to honor President Obama at today's commencement (see IrishCentral news story), we see the best and worst of many in the Church, and many who claim to be true Christians, on display.

The facts of the matter could not be clearer, which is testament to the uncanny ability we mortals have to look at the same thing and see totally different things:

  • Notre Dame is a fine Catholic university, and in word and deed, has skillfully and faithfully walked the tightrope of being what a true university must be -- a place where ideas and opinions on all topics can be freely exchanged -- and what a Catholic university must be -- an institution that instills in its students the "life lessons" of our true Teacher, Jesus Christ. The university itself must be a living, breathing extension of His Words, teaching, as He did, by example what it is to be a Christian.
  • The Catholic Church believes that our mortal life begins at conception, and therefore, condemns abortion as an attack on the Life that God Himself breathes into His tiny Creation in a mother's womb. Notre Dame also powerfully shares this position, and has been a guiding hand to its students who wish to take action in the world to protect life and work for an end to abortion.
  • President Obama, like a majority of Americans and perhaps even a majority of Christians, believes in a woman's right to choose to abort her pregnancy, which is a right protected by the nation's laws. He and his wife are the parents of two beautiful girls, and to this outsider's eye, they seem like very loving parents. He supports freedom of choice, but has made clear that he believes abortion "should be legal, and rare."
  • Notre Dame routinely confers an honorary degree on the nation's President as a matter of the high respect due the office of Chief Executive, and will do so again on Sunday.

And now, the Fighting Irish...

First, it has been wonderful to see the reaction of ND Response, a coalition of 11 Notre Dame student groups opposed to the school's decision, to mount a peaceful "prayerful and constructive" series of demonstrations and events, which are under way as I write this. They have been rightfully praised by the man who made the decision to invite President Obama, Notre Dame president Rev. John Jenkins. They are the future of the Church, and their work thus far shows that the university has helped transform their Christianity into the kind of teaching by example that was and is the Life of Jesus Christ.

And I am sure that millions of Christians have been moved by this moment -- as I have -- to pray that somehow, God's Family can find its way back to a respect for all life and to the protection of all life -- which includes not only the innocents in the womb, but those on prison death rows, in hospital beds near others who would prefer to "put them out of their misery," the victims of genocide, terrorism, war, and that most un-Christian of terms, a "just war," and the millions whose lives are cut short by the greed of others that fuels starvation and illness on a monumental scale.

Respect for life means respect for all life.

But to the surprise of nobody, tomorrow's commencement has also drawn the lunatic fringe of the pro-life movement the way a Roach Motel entices its guests. As always, they know how to put on a show for the cameras, which is really what it's all about for them:
Anti-abortion "activists" -- if that can even describe these borderline mental cases -- Randall Terry and Alan Keyes have led dozens of their Jim Jones-like followers to the school's Indiana campus, complete with their props -- baby carriages with bloody baby dolls and pictures of aborted fetuses. And that's just for openers -- who knows what these professional nuts will unveil for their grand finale? After all, they'll have to top the airshow sponsored by the "Center for Bioethical Reform," which has had a plane circling the campus since April 28, complete with even more-graphic images and messages of blood.

As I said before, it's no surprise that these vultures are literally flying above Notre Dame. But it is sadder to me that some -- and they are certainly in the minority -- Catholic priests, bishops and cardinals have also run to their microphones to pronounce judgment, apparently forgetting (again) that judgment belongs only to God. One of the more-creative ring-masters, Bishop Thomas Wenski of Florida, held a special Mass of Reparation -- an especially sacred and unusual ceremony properly reserved for the highest spiritual purposes -- to "atone" for this "assault on human life." What a tragic and foolish headline-grab, and a terrible misuse of both the pulpit and a special ceremony that has great meaning in the Church. Or did.

More than one commentator on his carnival act noted that it was difficult to find many Masses of Reparation that have been held to atone for the abuse of children by a small and sorry group of clergy, and the cover-up of the that abuse that is an even greater and more-malicious act. As one commentator observed on Belief.net, Bishop Wenski's circus was
"sadly comical but indicative of the problems faced by the Catholic Church these days. War, abuse scandals, torture, ethical lapses, stealing, lying, cheating -- and yet the subject of the Mass of Reparation is an honorary degree given to the President."

The Vatican, increasingly mindful of the hypocrisies (some deserved and many not deserved) that encircle it, has chosen to sit this one out -- a terrible disappointment to the high-living, free-spending bishops of wealthy dioceses whose lips are the first to lock onto the Papal ring, and can only be removed by blowtorches. Their show didn't play in Rome, and so they may miss a friendly first-class trip to view the Vatican's multibillion-dollar art collection, its palatial residences and offices, its mountains of gold and marble, its castles, jets, and other baubles that remind us so well of the humble and meager life of Jesus Christ.

Yes, that's a cheap shot and I admit it -- for despite its Disneyland in Rome and some high-on-the-hog hypocrites at the helm of some parishes and dioceses, the average person does not realize how much the Church spends on education, healthcare, the fight against hunger and homelessness, and its work with the poor and suffering. It is a staggering amount, and I can assure you: Life just about anywhere you are reading this column would be far worse for many without the Church's generosity and genuine care for the less-fortunate, the endless good works done by the majority of priests, nuns and other religious, and the mountain of loving help rendered by Catholic Charities.

But like any institution in the public eye, the Church lives in a glass house. And when the inevitable miscreants and brain-deprived mouths that find a home in every large institution grab the media's eye -- or are caught in it -- the entire Church suffers. Young people especially -- who with their vision and idealism are exactly what the Church needs -- turn away when we forget what we have been taught, and stray from the hard path which God has called on us to walk with Him. That is why when I think of the Notre Dame "controversy," my prayers are not just for the sanctity of life but for the young, principled students who will stand with Christ for life and love, and yet stand and listen to the President.

They will hear this good husband and father say what he has said before -- that he and the Church may never agree on the issue of abortion, but we can surely agree there should be far fewer of them -- and our differences should not prevent us from working together toward that goal.

When you read the Holy Gospel -- the Word of God -- it is sometimes remarkable to see how many times Jesus listened and how seldom he "preached." He did not need to make judgments, rules and condemnations -- quite the opposite -- and he did not need a bejeweled marble altar to speak from. Tens, then hundreds, then thousands, then millions, then billions heard His simple Call to love and followed Him.

They too, listened.

May God bless you all!

-- Father Tim