Leave it to a law student to pose an uncomfortable question to Archbishop John C. Nienstedt: Would the University of St. Thomas be allowed to invite President Obama to speak on campus?
The Most Rev. Nienstedt — as well as a dozen other conservative archbishops — has been in the news lately for chastising Notre Dame over inviting a pro-choice president to serve as this year’s commencement speaker and to receive an honorary law degree from the university. And the archbishops are backed by at least 225,000 Catholics who signed a Cardinal Newman Society petition railing at the audacity of Notre Dame’s president.
But on Thursday, Nienstedt indicated to St. Thomas law students at a luncheon in Minneapolis that Obama would be welcome at the Catholic university – just not at a high-profile event like commencement.
Is this an about-face? Not necessarily.
“There was definitely nuance in what the exact forum should be for that,” said law school spokesman Chato Hazelbaker, who checked with some luncheon attendees at MinnPost’s request. None of those attendees wanted to paraphrase the archbishop’s comments for MinnPost, and the archbishop was declining interview requests about his blistering letter.
Hazelbaker did not attend the luncheon, but confirmed the question was asked and answered at an event sponsored by the St. Thomas More Society, the Christian Legal Society and Lex Vitae. This was the archbishop’s first official visit to the law school, where he said Mass and went to a Q&A lunch session with about 50 attendees.
“My understanding is that the archbishop said, ‘Yes, he [Obama] is welcome, and here are some of the things that would make sense to me.’ But I don’t know the substance,” Hazelbaker said. “I just know the answer was nuanced. The other point he made, which is one of the reasons people are hesitant to paraphrase the archbishop, is that he viewed the letter as a private letter. When someone tells you it’s a private communication, you don’t want to pile on.”
Letter hits cyberspace
Somehow Nienstedt’s letter found its way into cyberspace and into mainstream and religious media leaning left and right on the Notre Dame-Obama controversy. Here are comments posted on a story by the Catholic News Agency.
The archbishop’s entire letter is in the “related content” area to the right of this story. Though the archdiocese declined to release a copy of the letter, a spokesman confirmed this is the content of the letter. Here are some of the scathing sentiments addressed to the Rev. John I. Jenkins, president of Notre Dame:
“I write to protest this egregious decision on your part. President Obama has been a pro-abortion legislator. He has indicated, especially since he took office, his deliberate disregard of the unborn by lifting the ban on embryonic stem cell research, by promoting the FOCA [Freedom of Choice Act] agenda and by his open support for gay rights throughout this country.
“It is a travesty that the University of Notre Dame, considered by many to be a Catholic University, should give its public support to such an anti-Catholic politician.”
Dennis McGrath, spokesman for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, said the phone calls to the archdiocese are split evenly between supporters and opponents while emails heavily favor Nienstedt. “They say thanks to the archbishop for standing up for our faith and for being supportive of Catholic teaching and for having the courage to speak out about this,” McGrath said Thursday. Some opponents have expressed that “the archbishop should keep his nose out of politics.”
Part of the uproar over the Notre Dame invitation appears to be related to a strict interpretation of a “Catholics and Political Life” guideline issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The guideline says that “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.”
St. Thomas and Obama
So, would St. Thomas go out on a limb and invite Obama to be a commencement speaker and give him an honorary degree? MinnPost just had to ask. News service director Jim Winterer cited the guideline above, but prefaced it with a little wit about the prominence of St. Thomas vs. Notre Dame. “First, just as a real practical thing, if we invited him, he probably wouldn’t come. … So this is not a question we’d be facing.”
On a more serious note: “This [the bishops’ guideline] has been a matter of much debate in conversations not just at universities but at parishes and other settings,” Winterer said. “Bishops have been working on a clarification, so we’ll be watching for that and hope it will offer further guidance on the question of could Obama come here. Under the [existing] circumstances, it would not be likely that St. Thomas would give the president an honorary degree or do something that would be an honor like inviting him as a commencement speaker.”
St. Thomas also would consult with the archbishop before issuing such an invitation, Winterer said.
Although the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis does not fund St. Thomas, archbishops still have some say-so over Catholic universities in their area. Nienstedt’s comparatively liberal predecessor, Harry Flynn, served as chairman of the university’s board of trustees. But before Nienstedt became archbishop, St. Thomas changed its bylaws so that an archbishop did not automatically become board chairman, which caused a firestorm among conservative Catholics.
When did the Catholic Church become so conservative about who is welcome to speak on campus and receive an honorary degree?
“The shift in conservatism has a great deal to do with the pontificate of John Paul II,” said David Landry, an associate professor of theology at St. Thomas. “In 1991, he wrote an encyclical about Catholic universities and how they have to be more Catholic. And ever since then, there’s been this push to re-emphasize Catholic identity at Catholic universities. In most places, it has meant a particular understanding of Catholicism that is conservative.”
At the same time the church leadership is becoming more conservative, a Gallup Poll report of March 30 finds that Catholics are “essentially tied with non-Catholics on the moral acceptability of abortion, divorce, and stem-cell research using human embryos.” For example, 63 percent of Catholics vs. 62 percent of non-Catholics think embryonic stem cell research is morally acceptable.
So, what’s with this disconnect between the flock and the frocked?
“I don’t think that’s so unusual because church archbishops are the guardian of the flame — they’re schooled in theology and scripture and have a much better understanding of the faith than most Catholics do,” said McGrath, the archdiocese’s spokesman who went to Catholic schools throughout his boyhood. “A lot of cradle Catholics don’t go to Catholic schools. … They don’t really get the instruction in the faith like my vintage did. … “They may be Catholic with a small c, which is not to put them down but they just haven’t invested the time and been exposed to some of the tenets of the faith.”
St. Thomas is no stranger to controversy when it comes to high-profile speakers. In 2007, the St. Paul-based campus made headlines when its president withdrew an invitation to Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu, a former archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, because of his views on Israel.
“The [university] president’s argument was that to invite Tutu would support his position vis-à-vis Israel,” said Landry, who belonged to a committee pushing to have Tutu re-invited. “And other people said, ‘No, inviting him doesn’t imply that, that Tutu is such an important figure that even if you don’t agree with him [he’s worth hearing]. It’s a very similar kind of argument here” with the Obama and Notre Dame issue.
Some people “push the idea of what is implied by inviting a speaker or conferring a degree,” Landry said. “Some people push too far. … Certainly, I would never draw the conclusion that Notre Dame or the church has gone soft on abortion because Notre Dame invited Obama to speak.”
Landry is particularly concerned that the archbishop said Obama is “anti-Catholic.”
“The fact that somebody doesn’t agree with the church doesn’t mean he’s anti-Catholic. That implies he harbors some sort of bigotry or prejudice. I think anyone can disagree with the church or its position without being prejudiced against them.”
Though Notre Dame’s president has been under tremendous pressure to rescind the invitation, Landry doesn’t see that happening.
“My suspicion is they’ll let President Obama speak and they won’t give him an honorary degree and that will make everyone unhappy,” he predicts. “I think Notre Dame wants to be known as a great university and it wants to be known as a Catholic university. … I think there are people at Notre Dame who think that a university that is so narrow in perspective that the president of the United States is not welcome to speak there — that this is not characteristic of a great university.
“I think people in positions of power at Notre Dame are not happy at being pushed around by the Cardinal Newman Society, so I’d be surprised if they rescinded the invitation. I would be surprised if Notre Dame didn’t issue a statement about inviting the president in virtue of his office but not in virtue of his particular beliefs,” a statement that “tried to distance the university from Obama’s political beliefs.”
Casey Selix, a news editor and writer for MinnPost.com, can be reached at cselix[at]minnpost[dot]com.
To readers: If you were Notre Dame’s president, what would you do? And, what do you think of Archbishop Nienstedt’s letter?