Well, Notre Dame’s commencement is nearly upon us. The students’ parents have arrived. The protesters are in place. The President’s speech is written. Judge Noonan’s speech is written – and his words should be greatly interesting to hear. The event has thoroughly captivated the American Catholic community, provoking the greatest intra-ecclesial debate since the Council Fathers debated "The Decree on Religious Liberty" at Vatican II.
The two debates are not unrelated. After the Council, the phrase "religious liberty" was used by progressives to justify all manner of dissent both within and without the boundaries of the Church. A careful reading of the text reveals competing philosophic visions at work. The American bishops, led by theologian John Courtney Murray, S.J. sought an endorsement of the constitutional arrangements America and most of the West had achieved, what Isaiah Berlin called "negative liberty," that is, a view of freedom that defined it, as in the First Amendment, as "freedom from." We are free from government coercion of our conscience, from government interference with our newspapers, etc. The alternate view, effectively articulated by the Archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojytla, argued that the Church can only endorse a "positive liberty, a view of freedom as "freedom for," and just so introduces notions of authentic freedom, recognizing that there are ways freedom can be perverted. The American view is more formal and legalistic. The Wojtyla view was more personalist. The American interpretation held sway in the immediate years after the Council, at least here in the States. (Father Murray led a group of scholars discussing this very issue at a symposium at Notre Dame shortly after the close of the Council.) The Wojytla view became ascendant when Wojtyla ascended the throne of Peter in 1978.
Most American university presidents, resist – on principle – the idea that a university should answer to external authorities. The authority that matters at a university is the authority of reason. There are canons of scholarship established to assess and apply that authority. But, a Catholic university, by definition, accepts an external authority, the authority of the Church and this acceptance has a variety of impacts on scholarship. There is a difference between "religious studies" which anyone can do and "theology" which presupposes acceptance of a given revelation. This is not to say the local bishop has the authority to ban books. Nor should anyone trust rightwing groups with an agenda to interpret a text like Ex Corde Ecclesiae which is a rich text, not the beating up on academics at all.
Last year, I was privileged to attend the speech Pope Benedict XVI delivered on Catholic education as a guest of the Catholic University of America. It was a fine speech. On the drive home I heard a conservative commentator (I do not remember who) say something like "He sure told them!" as if the Pope had delivered a scolding. Sitting in the room, everyone understood the Pope’s words to be words of grateful acknowledgement for all that had been accomplished by our Catholic education system and of encouragement to even greater heights of learning. But, as we have seen this year again, people hear what they want to hear and see what they want to see.
Of course, none of this has been at the center of the debate about President Obama’s coming to Notre Dame. But, when the bishops gather in Texas next month for their semi-annual meeting, they need to address this issue not only in its particulars but at its most fundamental level: What does it mean to be a Catholic engaged in this pluralistic culture of ours? What does it mean to be a Catholic university at this time in our nation’s history and in our Church’s history? When the dust settles Sunday evening, these questions remain.