Notre Dame's Decision and the Voice of the Pope

There seems to be a vague notion among non-Catholics, and sometimes even among Catholics themselves, that somehow the lack of a statement from the Pope himself on the decision by Notre Dame University to honor President Obama indicates that he is either supportive of the decision or that the issue of whether or not the President should have been honored by a Catholic institution is a debatable matter. This could not be further from the truth. It concerns me in watching how supporters of Fr. Jenkins have framed their dialogue in interviews, whenever they mention Pope Benedict in relation to this issue, that the uninformed could potentially come to view the Church as a somewhat disorganized group of people who do things willy-nilly unless the Pope clears things up for everyone, as if the Pope is the only person in the Catholic Church with any authority whatsoever. It is helpful to examine how the authority of the Church works in practice.

We can see the basic model of the Church yet in its infancy in the Book of Acts, Chapter 15 where a dispute about circumcision appears and the matter is taken to the Council of Jerusalem. Even though this was a serious matter of doctrine which was of concern to the entire Church worldwide (not merely a local issue of whether or not to obey previously defined teaching), it was St. James, bishop of Jerusalem, who pronounced the teaching on the matter per the instruction of St. Peter who was historically the first pope. The office then held by St. Peter which is now held by Pope Benedict XVI is one of being “first among equals”. Because the issue of circumcision was not something that had previously been defined, it required formal definition by the “apostles and elders” who were then seated in Jerusalem. In fact, St. Paul traveled over three hundred miles from Antioch to Jerusalem for a ruling that would become binding upon the entire Church. Even so, the official pronouncement was made by St. James, the bishop of Jerusalem wherein the Council was seated, and the decision was final.

What if, after the decision on the matter had already been promulgated, there rose up disobedience to it in the Church at the local level? That disobedience would be comparable to the disobedience which occurred at Notre Dame yesterday in that there is no excuse for it. The teaching on this matter was pronounced long before Barack Obama was even elected as President of the United States. It was not a debatable issue before his election as President and neither his glowing personality, high intellect or even his work among the poor, regardless of how noble his intentions may have been, could possibly excuse disobedience.

Again, there should have been no dispute whatsoever as the instruction had already previously been issued by the full United States Conference of Catholic Bishops even before Barack Obama was elected as President of the United States. That instruction, Catholics in Political Life says, in part:

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.

What is a “fundamental moral principle”? Had there been some confusion on Fr. Jenkins’ part as to whether or not President Obama has acted “in defiance of our fundamental moral principles”, his responsibility would have been to consult the local bishop for an authoritative interpretation, as Bishop John D’Arcy, Jenkins’ local bishop, explains.

The Church has been very clear already that certain issues consisently trump others. This is clear in the USCCB’s document Faithful Citizenship though some wish to distort it because their priorities differ from God’s.

If you really want a statement from the Pope on this, we can provide one that is objective and timely and that covers all persons regardless of who they are and what circumstances they may find themselves in. On May 4, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI affirmed non-negotiables in his address to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. In that address, he noted the growth in recognition by the world community of human rights after we experienced tremendous upheaval and suffering during two World Wars. These rights do include many of the rights championed by President Obama, to the President’s credit. Pope Benedict noted, however, that these rights now almost universally recognized across the world actually spring from even more basic rights — the “right to life” and the “freedom of conscience and religion” — both of which are now under assault by President Obama with his pledge to reinstate funding of the UNFPA (who can bear it?) and his proposal to take away the freedom of conscience of health care workers. (Again, who can bear it?)

Priorities, folks.

It is neither necessary nor appropriate for the Pope to address a local issue specifically when he speaks volumes on these things for the world at large — issues that apply universally (“Catholic” means “universal”, folks.) to all of humankind. President Obama, despite the fact that he is the leader of the most powerful nation in the world, is not so special that he is exempt from what is fundamentally wrong for all of humanity. Please. Give us a break from the calls to have the Pope give the proverbial time of day to those who suppose that Obama is unique among all men in that he is exempt from being required to defend life and conscience at the most fundamental levels.

As Bishop D’Arcy indicates in the statement shared on the diocesan website, his authority on the matter was not appropriately sought by Fr. Jenkins, President of Notre Dame.

There are tribunals in the Church which deal with disagreements on interpretation. When all other appeals have been exhausted, the matter is left to the Vatican. Does the Pope make a decision on these individual matters? Nope. That is left to the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura. That’s the Vatican’s highest court and its Prefect is Archbishop Raymond Burke. Appropriately, because of the scandal involved in this matter with a President who is truly unique in that Office and with Notre Dame having the reputation of being the premiere Catholic university in America, Archbishop Burke issued a public statement on the matter. He did not disappoint.