With One of Their Own under Fire, University Presidents Stood Silent

By Reese, Thomas J. | National Catholic Reporter, May 29, 2009 | Go to article overview

With One of Their Own under Fire, University Presidents Stood Silent


Reese, Thomas J., National Catholic Reporter


During the debate over President Obama's appearance at Notre Dame University almost everyone had an opinion and expressed it loudly: bishops, students, alumni, pro-life activists, TV pundits, editorial writers, Republicans, Democrats, Catholics and non-Catholics.

While some Republican activists used the controversy to exacerbate divisions between Catholics and Democrats, most of the protesters were sincere, if sometimes intemperate, just as the antiwar protesters of the '60s were sincere and sometimes intemperate.

Enough has already been said about the participants in this debate. Here I want to talk about the case of the dogs that did not bark, and I don't mean the 200-plus bishops who said nothing. A majority of bishops keeping silent while a minority takes center stage is not surprising. We saw that in the last two presidential elections.

What was surprising was that one group--which knows more about Catholic higher education and had more at stake than most--was AWOL during the entire controversy. The Catholic college and university presidents were silent.

"Why did they not speak out?" I asked myself during the long public argument. Why did they not defend their brother president, Holy Cross Fr. John Jenkins? Why did they not come to the defense of Notre Dame? Why did they keep silent? Yes, a handful did speak, such as Trinity College President Patricia McGuire. Georgetown University President Jack DeGioia also showed solidarity by allowing Obama to speak on campus. But most were silent.

Various theories were floated when I asked this question. Perhaps the presidents agreed with the critics of Notre Dame that a pro-choice president of the United States should not be invited to speak at a Catholic university commencement. Perhaps they agreed that he should not have been given an honorary degree. Does silence indicate consent? Considering the number of Catholic institutions that have been attacked for their speakers and degree recipients by the Cardinal Newman Society, I doubt this explanation. If presidents are not for academic freedom and autonomy, who will be?

Another theory is that the presidents actually took some pleasure in seeing Notre Dame under fee. After hearing it so often touted as the premier Catholic university that was truly Catholic (as opposed to their own schools), they were not all that unhappy to see it get its comeuppance. …

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