Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Counter The Culture

Yesterday at NRO's The Corner, Ramesh Ponnuru speculated on the fallout from Notre Dame honoring President Obama:

Many other commentators have pointed out that most Catholics approved of Notre Dame's invitation and, indeed, voted for Obama. This seems to me an awfully short-sighted view of the fallout. Notre Dame's invitation was valuable to Obama because of its status among American Catholics. Does anyone think that status is now higher than it was before the invitation? In helping Obama, Notre Dame diminished itself. And the same polls that showed that most Catholics approved of the invitation showed that a plurality of weekly churchgoers do not. Which group do we expect to have more influence over the future of Catholicism in America: self-described Catholics who attend Mass weekly or those who don't? I'm not saying that the traditionalists have the upper hand here, only that a quick look at the polls may not be a reliable guide to the long-run consequences of this episode.

Those who believe that this is just another controversy of the day that will soon blow over and become yesterday's news fail to appreciate the depth and breadth of the reaction that this event has generated among traditional Catholics.

In the June issue of FIRST THINGS, Joseph Bottum has a lengthy and insightful article on the matter. He notes that this is hardly the first battle between the Catholic Church and Catholic universities and it certainly won't be the last. He recounts the behavior of Notre Dame's president Fr. Jenkins in the controversy (which he describes as "execrable"), the political implications of story, and most interestingly, points out that Notre Dame's decision was as much (if not more) a rebuke to American Catholic culture as it was to the Church. Fortunately, his piece called "At The Gates Of Notre Dame" is already available for all at the FIRST THINGS web site:

It is a horrifying fact, in many ways, that Roe v. Wade has done more to provide Catholic identity than any other event of the last fifty years. Still, for American Catholics, the Church is a refuge and bulwark against an ambient culture that erodes morality and undermines families. Catholic culture is their counterculture, their means of upholding the dignity of the human person and the integrity of family--and, in that context, the centrality of abortion for American Catholic culture seems much less arbitrary than it first appeared.

This is what the leaders of Notre Dame need to grasp, along with those at Georgetown, Xavier, Sacred Heart, and all the rest. They do not necessarily have bad theology--although the bishops have argued that they do--when they equate the life issues with other concerns. They do not have bad faith just because they see the war and capital punishment as matters of equal weight with the million babies killed every year in this country by abortion. But they lack the cultural marker that would make them distinctively Catholic in the minds of other Catholics. Abortion is not the only life issue, but it is the one that bears most directly on the lives of ordinary Catholics as they fight against the current to preserve family life. And until Catholic universities get this, they will not be Catholic--in a very real, existentially important sense.

This is why this incident will not be soon forgotten by traditional Catholics. As watered down and diluted as American Catholic culture has become over the years, it still has importance and meaning for millions who remain faithful to the Church's teachings. And--as Bottum notes--as they fight against the current to preserve family life, they will be looking for Catholic leaders and institutions to stand beside them in battle. Those that choose not to will likely forfeit their support and may no longer be considered part of their shared culture.

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