by Patrick B. Craine

SOUTH BEND, Indiana, May 6, 2009 ( -The University of Notre Dame’s invitation of President Obama to deliver their 2009 graduation commencement address on May 17th has generated great controversy in the North American Church and shocked many Catholics who have looked to Notre Dame as the very model of Catholic higher education in America. This invitation, however, is by no means an isolated incident, and, in fact, is merely a continuation of Notre Dame’s progressive self-detachment from the Catholic Church over the last forty years.

Rift Away From Church Began in 1961 Under Fr. Theodore M. Hesburgh

Notre Dame began to distance itself from the Church particularly in the 1960s, under university president Fr. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C. To begin with, in 1961 Notre Dame awarded its Laetare Medal, the same medal recently refused by former ambassador to the Vatican Mary Ann Glendon (, to then-President John F. Kennedy. This medal is awarded annually to an American Catholic deemed to have made a significant contribution to the Church and society. By 1961, though, President Kennedy, the first Catholic president, had made himself famous for declaring that his Catholic beliefs would not affect his actions as a politician. In September 1960, for example, he declared: “Whatever issue may come before me as PresidentâEUR¦I will make my decisionâEUR¦in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.”

By honoring the President in this way, Notre Dame helped him set the precedent for Catholic politicians to disregard the Church’s teachings, one which we still experience today, for example in the case of Joseph Biden and Nancy Pelosi.

Definitive Break From Church With 1967 Land O’Lakes Statement

On July 23rd, 1967, however, Notre Dame made its definitive break with the Church, along with other American universities, in the Land O’Lakes statement, spearheaded by President Fr. Hesburgh, and signed by him and other Notre Dame officials. In this infamous statement, the American universities declared their separation from the authority of the Catholic Church: “To perform its teaching and research functions effectively the Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself” ( Notre Dame has never rescinded its involvement in this statement, and, in fact, has operated based on it ever since.

Notre Dame’s public entry into abortion politics began in September 1984 with the address of Governor Mario Cuomo of New York, a Catholic following in the spirit of President Kennedy, as Fr. Raymond J. de Souza discusses in his article “Glendon, Notre Dame, and Abortion Politics” (

Governor Cuomo’s aim in speaking at Notre Dame was to argue that Catholics can defend and support abortion rights in good conscience. Fr. de Souza argues, however, that Fr. Hesburgh and theology professor Fr. Richard McBrien chose to bring him to Notre Dame for that specific purpose, to undermine the Church’s pro-life teaching. Fr. de Souza makes this argument in light of the fact that Notre Dame brought Governor Cuomo to speak only six months after John Cardinal O’Connor’s high-profile correction of Catholic Vice-President nominee Geraldine Ferraro for her pro-abortion views.

Dissent Took Hold Under Notre Dame President Fr. Edward A. Malloy

Fr. Hesburgh began the process, but it was under the next President, Fr. Edward A. Malloy, C.S.C., that Notre Dame’s dissent truly began to take hold. Clearly showing a lack of concern for Church teaching and the dignity of life, in 1992, Fr. Malloy elected to award the Laetare medal to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a staunchly pro-abortion Catholic. Further, according to The Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College (, Fr. Malloy expressed concerns about Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Constitution Ex corde Ecclesiae, on Catholic universities, indicating that certain provisions were “offensive to the Catholic theological community” (pg. 211).

According to Fr. Edward O’Connor, retired professor of theology at Notre Dame, being quoted in July 2003, “Notre Dame has, for all practical purposes, decided to evade the mandate,” ( which is the Church’s license to teach, conferred by the bishop, and prescribed by Ex corde. This seems to be the approach pursued by current president Fr. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C. as well (see “Catholicism, Inc.” by Naomi S. Riley,

It was also under Fr. Malloy, in 1995-96, that the Core Council for Gay and Lesbian Students was developed and initiated, with the mission of “identifying the ongoing needs of gay, lesbian, and bi-sexual students, and assist[ing] in implementing campus-wide educational programming on gay and lesbian issues” ( This Core Council runs events such as ‘National Coming Out Day’ and ‘Solidarity Sunday’, the latter being a Sunday once a year where all Masses celebrate Notre Dame’s ‘Spirit of Inclusion’ for homosexuals on campus.

In 1997, the Officers of the university put out a statement entitled ‘The Spirit of Inclusion’ that emphasizes the need for inclusiveness without acknowledgment or explanation of the Church’s teaching on homosexuality ( Also of note during Fr. Malloy’s presidency is the inauguration of two highly controversial annual events – The Vagina Monologues in 2002, and the ‘Queer Film Fest’ in 2004 (see

Break From Church Continues Under Fr. Jenkins

The Notre Dame that Fr. Jenkins took over when he became President on July 1st, 2005 was vastly changed from that during Fr. Hesburgh’s presidency. Besides the changes noted above, The Newman Guide informs us that the number of Catholic faculty dropped from 85% in the 1970s to about 53% in 2008 (pg. 214).

To his credit, Fr. Jenkins has initiated an attempt to improve the percentage of Catholic faculty from this abysmally low number, yet he has allowed controversial events to take place on campus that are contrary to Catholic teaching. As well, his previous record of speaker invitations indicates that his invitation to President Obama should not have come as a great surprise.

The Queer Film Fest has continued under Fr. Jenkins despite the protest of the bishop, John M. D’Arcy. Fr. Jenkins has, rather, encouraged the organizers to take a more academic approach to the films (Newman Guide, pg. 211). The Vagina Monologues also continued, again despite the strong criticism of Bishop D’Arcy. Fr. Jenkins did put a halt to the production in 2007, but reallowed it in 2008 in an attempt to maintain a spirit of openness, dialogue, and academic freedom. The Monologues were cancelled this year by the producers due to the controversy surrounding it (

In 2006, President Mary McAleese of Ireland was the commencement speaker and was given an honorary degree, in spite of her criticism of the Church, particularly over the issue of women’s ordination. Then, in 2007, Dr. Mary Sue Coleman, President of the University of Michigan, was welcomed as the commencement speaker for the Graduate School of Notre Dame and was given an honorary degree, despite her advocacy for and initiative in the area of embryonic stem cell research (

Fr. Jenkins has argued that inviting and honoring President Obama opens the possibility of dialogue with him. As he says, “However misguided some might consider our actions, it is in the spirit of providing a basis for dialogue that we invited President Obama” ( On this note he has been criticized by many people, bishops, priests, and laypeople, faulting him for a false notion of dialogue and academic freedom. It would seem, though, that this has been the approach he has taken throughout his presidency, and that he is merely following in a longstanding Notre Dame tradition initiated by Fr. Hesburgh in the 1960s.

For the current list of bishops who have criticized President Obama’s commencement at Notre Dame:

66: Bishops Decry “Toxic Residue” of Notre Dame Scandal

See also:

Glendon, Notre Dame, and Abortion Politics by Fr. Raymond J. de Souza

The section on Notre Dame in The Newman Guide to Catholic Colleges