By Kathleen Gilbert

SAN ANTONIO, Texas, June 22, 2009 ( – Following their spring meeting in San Antonio last week, the U.S. bishops today issued a statement of support for Fort Wayne-South Bend Bishop John D'Arcy's “pastoral concern” for the University of Notre Dame. The bishop made national and international headlines earlier this year after he publicly rebuked Notre Dame's decision to honor President Obama.

“The bishops of the United States express our appreciation and support for our brother bishop, the Most Reverend John D'Arcy,” reads the brief statement from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

“We affirm his pastoral concern for Notre Dame University, his solicitude for its Catholic identity, and his loving care for all those the Lord has given him to sanctify, to teach and to shepherd.”

Bishop D'Arcy, who said he had not been consulted before the school invited President Obama, had questioned whether Notre Dame had “chosen prestige over truth” by doing so. The bishop boycotted the commencement, instead backing an alternate ceremony that day protesting the President's aggressive pro-abortion agenda.

The Cardinal Newman Society, which gathered more than 367,000 signatures on a petition opposing the commencement address and honor to President Obama, welcomed the bishops' strong expression of unity in support of Bishop D'Arcy.

“Facing criticism by political partisans and secularists, Bishop D'Arcy prayerfully led dozens of his fellow bishops and thousands of Catholics worldwide in confronting the scandal at one of our own Catholic universities,” said Patrick J. Reilly, President of The Cardinal Newman Society.  “It is a comfort and a blessing to American Catholics that the bishops' conference would issue such an extraordinary expression of unity and support.”

National Catholic Reporter's (NCR) John Allen said he found that, besides the bishops' support for the local bishop's authority, their opinions on the controversy varied.

Over 360,000 petitioners and 83 bishops, 80 of them active diocesan or auxiliary bishops, condemned the University of Notre Dame's invitation of President Obama on May 17 to issue the commencement address and receive an honorary degree. Most of the bishops' statements pointed to a 2004 U.S. Bishops' document, “Catholics in Political Life,” which forbids the awarding of awards or platforms to pro-abortion politicians at Catholic schools.

Many at the conference acknowledged that the Notre Dame scandal, and the 2004 document involved, was a topic of frequent discussion last week: Archbishop George Niederauer of San Francisco said it came up “at breakfast, over coffee and in the hallways.”

Although an unprecedented number of bishops had concurred in varying degrees that Notre Dame was wrong to invite President Obama, a much smaller number of bishops expressed dissatisfaction with the public condemnations. Only one bishop, Archbishop Emeritus John Quinn of San Francisco, had openly taken a stance defensive of Notre Dame and President Obama in the weeks leading up to commencement.

One anonymous bishop told NCR he was “appalled” at the often strong condemnations of his brother bishops. “I'm sure the enemies of the church were delighted to see the bishops attacking the country's premier Catholic university, but I wasn't delighted,” he said.

Other bishops complained that the approach of those who criticized of Obama's appearance risked being “too negative, too narrow, and too partisan,” and favorably noted President Obama's endorsement of a “sensible conscience clause” in his abortion-themed speech at Notre Dame.

While President Obama's conscience clause endorsement was widely met with approbation, it was unclear how the endorsement jived with his administration's decision – almost immediately after the inauguration – to begin the process of repealing a conscience protection regulation that had been established by President Bush. The regulation was designed to strengthen doctors' constitutional right to refuse to provide or refer for abortion. Obama has not clarified the statement any further since the Notre Dame speech.

Although the bishops were ultimately unsuccessful in convincing Notre Dame to back down from their decision, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York said the bishops' response may have gained ground in establishing an authoritative voice for the U.S. Catholic Church.

“As far as authority and power go, it may look like a defeat,” said Dolan. “But in terms of a recovery of episcopal voice and muscle, it may have succeeded.

“Twenty-five years from now, when somebody's doing a master's thesis on all of this, it could be a chapter where the bishops came together and said, 'This is a moment when we need to exercise some teaching authority.'” 

Dolan continued: “We kitchen-tabled an issue. In normal Catholic homes throughout the country, people are talking about this. Granted, there might not be unanimity, but there's recognition that the bishops have something to say, they need to say it, and they ought to say it.”

See related coverage: 

Bishops Curry, Kicanas Dismiss Sanctions, Stress Virtue of “Dialogue” in Wake of ND Scandal


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