Notre Dame, Georgetown and President Obama
Religion & Liberty Online

Notre Dame, Georgetown and President Obama

The Detroit News published a column yesterday that I wrote about Catholic identity and the controversies sparked by President Obama’s visit to Georgetown and his planned speech at Notre Dame. National Review Online also published a variation of the same column last week under the title, The Catholic Identity Crisis.

Here’s the Detroit News column:

President Barack Obama made an interesting comment on economics during his April 14 speech at Georgetown University. “We cannot rebuild this economy on the same pile of sand,” he said. “We must build our house upon a rock.”

I doubt anyone would accuse him of plagiarizing here, but what he is paraphrasing came from Jesus’ parable. The man who built the house on sand paid the price. The winds took down the house. The man who built on stone enjoyed a house that withstood the storm.

It is quite appropriate that the parable was quoted at this Catholic university founded by Jesuits. Crucifixes, statues of Mary and other religious items are everywhere, revealing the rich tradition here.

Oddly, the president’s advance team insisted that all religious symbols be covered in the place in which he was speaking. Incredibly, Georgetown officials complied. At the request of the White House, university officials placed a cover over the letters IHS — the Greek abbreviation for the name of Jesus — during the president’s recent talk there.

This incident follows the ongoing uproar over Obama’s planned speech at Notre Dame, where he will be given an honorary doctorate, because of his pro-choice social policies.

What is happening is that political realities are capitalizing on a cultural shift and may be causing a Catholic identity crisis.

In the past half-century, Catholics have overcome a hostile culture and been assimilated, along with their own institutions. So complete has been this assimilation that on almost any matter of public policy or lifestyle choices, Catholics are indistinguishable from other Americans — until comparing regular practitioners with the nominally faithful.

It may not be farfetched to assert that there is an identity crisis among nominal Catholics, who are embarrassed by the distinctiveness of their more faithful brethren who hold to fast days, don’t approve of abortion and think marriage is what their grandparents thought it was, among other hot-button questions.

Of course, nominal Catholics would deny such an identity crisis. They may simply believe in a pluralistic and tolerant society.

But if the religious family that was once the church’s leading defender is willing to blot out the very name that is their own name (Jesuit), and their historic inspiration, please tell me what would constitute an identity crisis.

Think of it: A Catholic university was willing to cover up the name of Jesus, hide it from the cameras, because the president was coming and his advance team asked university officials to do so. The fact alone gives me chills.

At the root of tolerance is the notion that one is permissive about the beliefs of those with whom one precisely does not agree. If you do not know who you are and what you hold to be true, you cannot be tolerant.

We have come to the point in our society that the most significant contribution Georgetown or Notre Dame could make to society’s diversity would be to become, once again, Catholic and not be embarrassed about it.

The Catholic Church and the Jesuits in particular (such as the infamous case of the persecution, torture and execution of Edmund Campion by England’s Queen Elizabeth I) have in their own history heroic examples of martyrs willing to die for the faith and those very same martyrs refusing to submit to secular authority.

The least these campus authorities could do would be not to take active measures to undermine their own identity — as if the faith that inspired their existence were a mere add-on that could be easily covered over.

Rev. Robert Sirico

Rev. Robert A. Sirico received his Master of Divinity degree from the Catholic University of America, following undergraduate study at the University of Southern California and the University of London. During his studies and early ministry, he experienced a growing concern over the lack of training religious studies students receive in fundamental economic principles, leaving them poorly equipped to understand and address today's social problems. As a result of these concerns, Fr. Sirico co-founded the Acton Institute with Kris Alan Mauren in 1990. As president of the Acton Institute, Fr. Sirico lectures at colleges, universities, and business organizations throughout the U.S. and abroad. His writings on religious, political, economic, and social matters are published in a variety of journals, including: the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, the London Financial Times, the Washington Times, the Detroit News, and National Review. Fr. Sirico is often called upon by members of the broadcast media for statements regarding economics, civil rights, and issues of religious concern, and has provided commentary for CNN, ABC, the BBC, NPR, and CBS' 60 Minutes, among others. In April of 1999, Fr. Sirico was awarded an honorary doctorate in Christian Ethics from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, and in May of 2001, Universidad Francisco Marroquin awarded him an honorary doctorate in Social Sciences. He is a member of the prestigious Mont Pèlerin Society, the American Academy of Religion, and the Philadelphia Society, and is on the Board of Advisors of the Civic Institute in Prague. Father Sirico also served on the Michigan Civil Rights Commission from 1994 to 1998. He is also currently serving on the pastoral staff of Sacred Heart of Jesus parish in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Fr. Sirico's pastoral ministry has included a chaplaincy to AIDS patients at the National Institute of Health and the recent founding of a new community, St. Philip Neri House in Grand Rapids, Michigan.