To Fighting Irish, Francis Spikes the Ball... For the Bishops
Over time, the propagated notion of a Pope bent on "changing" those aspects of church teaching that conflict with secularized Western society has aroused increasing concern among Francis' team, spurring a new strategy of increasingly explicit rebuttals. The latest example came just yesterday amid the cover piece for the forthcoming Rolling Stone – the first-ever papal fronting on the iconic magazine – which included a sidebar on "10 conservatives who have gone liberal" and was promptly rapped by the VatiSpox, Fr Federico Lombardi, as having "disqualified itself" by "falling in the usual mistake of a superficial journalism."
Today, the clarification of substance fell to Francis himself, during a mostly effusive hourlong meeting with a group from the University of Notre Dame, in Rome for the opening of the Golden Dome's new base in the city, and the winter meeting of its board of trustees. This time, there's also an old friend newly in town – the recently-arrived US ambassador to the Holy See, Ken Hackett, is a prior recipient of Notre Dame's Laetare Medal, American Catholicism's most revered and prestigious honor.
Of course, the nation's flagship Catholic university became the piñata par excellence of the Stateside church's conservative wing for some time following its 2009 conferral of an honorary degree on President Obama as he delivered the school's commencement address – an act critics charged to be in defiance of the USCCB's 2004 ad hoc protocols on Catholics in Political Life due to Obama's support for legal abortion. A Dome tradition dating back to FDR, a Notre Dame degree for the Commander-in-Chief was only recently denied to Bill Clinton, a Georgetown grad and the last pro-choice POTUS before the incumbent.
More recently, meanwhile, after a Federal court denied Notre Dame temporary relief from the HHS mandate for contraceptive coverage in benefit plans amid its second lawsuit against the Obama administration, earlier this month the university acceded to the policy, with the explicit proviso that it would be suspended should the ongoing court fights over the mandate side with the roughly 100 non-exempt church-affiliated entities nationwide which have sued to block it on religious freedom grounds. The move provided the backdrop to an unusually pointed remark: a papal call for "the defense of [the church's] freedom, precisely in and through her institutions," that they might "uphold [the moral] teaching as authoritatively proclaimed by the magisterium of her pastors," adding his "hope that the University of Notre Dame will continue to offer unambiguous testimony to this aspect of its foundational Catholic identity, especially in the face of efforts, from whatever quarter, to dilute that indispensable witness."
"This is important: its identity, as it was intended from the beginning," Francis repeated. "To defend it, to preserve it and to advance it!"
Despite the under-the-gun call – which, given Notre Dame's iconic place in American Catholic lore, was treated with an outsize significance – university officials remain impassioned in their commitment to an "ongoing fight." Emergency hearings to press the university's push for a block on the mandate are slated for early February, and the delegation present today took the "warmly smiling" Pope's comment as an encouragement for its continuing efforts.
Back in South Bend, a Federal appeals court recently granted standing in the court battle to three Notre Dame students seeking birth-control coverage in university-granted plans. The trio are being represented by a liberal interest-group. On a separate plane, meanwhile, a Notre Dame philosophy professor took to the pages of the New York Times last week "to explore the possibility... that the pope might be open to significant revision of the absolute ban on abortion," a thought Francis directly shot down today by urging an "uncompromising witness of Catholic universities to the church’s moral teaching."
In his piece on the Times' "Opinionator" blog, Gary Gutting cited Evangelii gaudium in seeking to advance that while "for most pregnancies abortion would be morally wrong... a woman’s right to control her reproductive life can, as in the case of rape, offset even a person’s right to life; and at least at the earlier stages of pregnancy, the embryo has only the moral standing of potential, not actual, human life, which may be overridden by harm to humans with full moral standing."
Back to the mandate, had the move on the HHS "final rule" not been taken, the Feds' stated $100 per employee per day fine for non-compliance would've risked Notre Dame upwards of $1 million a day in civil penalties. Along the way, however, several other ecclesial entities have moved to accept the "accommodation" with far less controversy, including the nation's Catholic hospitals and the Domers' longtime ad intra rival on the national stage – Georgetown – which implemented the policy for its faculty and student plans at the start of this academic year, a decision the Jesuit school's president, John diGioia, praised for enabling "the opportunity to reconcile our religious identity and our commitment to providing access to affordable healthcare."
As the wider mandate scene goes, while not formally taking the case yet, the Supreme Court has issued two temporary injunctions on behalf of the Little Sisters of the Poor, allowing the heroic community of carers for the aged poor to continue resisting the rule without risk of the crippling fines. Though no penalties have yet been levied anywhere to date, the Sisters' injunctions don't apply to any other non-exempt entities which have refused to comply. In late December, a lower court granted a similar temporary stay to the pending suit filed by the Pennsylvania dioceses of Pittsburgh and Erie.
On another front, while the Vatican readout of Secretary of State John Kerry's mid-January meeting with Francis' SegStat, Cardinal-designate Pietro Parolin, noted that the latter raised the bishops' concerns over the mandate with the Massachusetts Catholic, in a lengthy recap with reporters afterward, Kerry made no reference to that aspect of the talks. In any event, today's papal reference to the church-state spat signals its very likely place on the agenda when the President and Pope have their first meeting on March 27th at the Vatican.
For their part, it bears noting that the US bishops failed to reach consensus on a unanimous local response to the policy high-wire as its effective date loomed at their November Meeting in Baltimore. While the body on a national level vowed to "stand united in our resolve to resist this heavy burden and protect our religious freedom," their statement's very next sentence provided that "each bishop struggles to address the mandate" for his own circumstances. Accordingly, as one senior prelate quietly shrugged minutes after the closed-door debate ended, "I'm not going to lose any sleep over" implementing the policy for the entities in his charge.
Back to Rome today, in token of the import of the Pope's message, the Holy See released an English translation of Francis' remarks alongside their original Italian text. Here, then is the full, brief talk – which, let's not forget, coincides with the 40th annual observance of Catholic Schools Week in the US and parts beyond:
I am pleased to greet the Trustees of Notre Dame University on the occasion of your meeting in Rome, which coincides with the inauguration of the University’s Rome Center. I am confident that the new Center will contribute to the University’s mission by exposing students to the unique historical, cultural and spiritual riches of the Eternal City, and by opening their minds and hearts to the impressive continuity between the faith of Saints Peter and Paul, and the confessors and martyrs of every age, and the Catholic faith passed down to them in their families, schools and parishes. From its founding, Notre Dame University has made an outstanding contribution to the Church in your country through its commitment to the religious education of the young and to serious scholarship inspired by confidence in the harmony of faith and reason in the pursuit of truth and virtue. Conscious of the critical importance of this apostolate for the new evangelization, I express my gratitude for the commitment which Notre Dame University has shown over the years to supporting and strengthening Catholic elementary and secondary school education throughout the United States.
The vision which guided Father Edward Sorin and the first religious of the Congregation of Holy Cross in establishing the University of Notre Dame du Lac remains, in the changed circumstances of the twenty-first century, central to the University’s distinctive identity and its service to the Church and American society. In my Exhortation on the Joy of the Gospel, I stressed the missionary dimension of Christian discipleship, which needs to be evident in the lives of individuals and in the workings of each of the Church’s institutions. This commitment to "missionary discipleship" ought to be reflected in a special way in Catholic universities (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, 132-134), which by their very nature are committed to demonstrating the harmony of faith and reason and the relevance of the Christian message for a full and authentically human life. Essential in this regard is the uncompromising witness of Catholic universities to the Church’s moral teaching, and the defense of her freedom, precisely in and through her institutions, to uphold that teaching as authoritatively proclaimed by the magisterium of her pastors. It is my hope that the University of Notre Dame will continue to offer unambiguous testimony to this aspect of its foundational Catholic identity, especially in the face of efforts, from whatever quarter, to dilute that indispensable witness. And this is important: its identity, as it was intended from the beginning. To defend it, to preserve it and to advance it!
Dear friends, I ask you to pray for me as I strive to carry out the ministry which I have received in service to the Gospel, and I assure you of my prayers for you and for all associated with the educational mission of Notre Dame University. Upon you and your families, and in a particular way, upon the students, faculty and staff of this beloved University, I invoke the Lord’s gifts of wisdom, joy and peace, and cordially impart my Blessing.