The Catholic outrage toward the University of Notre Dame for its plan to honor President Obama at its commencement ceremony Sunday is unprecedented -- but only in its scope, not in its occurrence. Obama's pro-abortion-rights stance has prompted 74 American bishops to criticize the honor; some are even ready to cut ties with the university. More than 360,000 Catholics have signed the Cardinal Newman Society's petition at NotreDame- Scandal.com.
I founded the Cardinal Newman Society 16 years ago to encourage the renewal of Catholic identity at Catholic colleges and universities. It documents commencement speakers and honorees whose public actions and statements are contrary to key moral teachings of the church, and it has seen plenty of controversies over the choices. In some cases, our protests and those of Catholics nationwide have helped avert scandal.
In 2003, after the society urged the highly secularized Marist College to replace its speaker, then-New York Atty. Gen. Eliot Spitzer, Marist balked and publicly acknowledged that it was no longer a Catholic institution.
U.S. bishops approved a policy in 2004 stating: "The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions."
That policy is at the heart of the Notre Dame controversy. The university claims its honor does not suggest support for the president's policies on abortion and embryonic stem cell research, but scores of bishops and the thousands who have signed the petition clearly disagree. For them, there is a sense that they and their faith have been betrayed.
Although the bishops' efforts and Catholic protests have had an effect, some colleges and universities have tested the bishops' mettle, often resulting in embarrassment to their own institutions.
In 2005, Baltimore's Cardinal William Keeler boycotted a commencement address by Rudolph Giuliani at Loyola College, and New Orleans Archbishop Alfred Hughes boycotted the Loyola University New Orleans commencement honoring Sen. Mary Landrieu. And after the society urged Marymount Manhattan College in New York to replace then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as the speaker, the college followed the example of Marist College and publicly acknowledged that it was no longer Catholic.
This month, Archbishop Alfred Hughes boycotted the ceremony featuring pundit Donna Brazile at Xavier University in New Orleans.
The president of the Assn. of Catholic Colleges and Universities recently claimed that there was a "degree of ambiguity" in the bishops' policy against such honors. The greater ambiguity is in too many Catholic universities' commitment to Catholic teaching -- with regard to honorees, and also in theology courses and their approach to campus life.
The Notre Dame scandal is only the biggest and most recent example of a much larger problem in Catholic higher education. And that's why the protests will continue.