The University of Notre Dame’s invitation to President Barack Obama to be its Commencement speaker next month is doing its job. Both sides of the Pro-life/Pro-Choice debate are going at it full force. Cardinal George called the invitation an “embarrassment to Catholics.” Ten Holy Cross priests signed a letter citing the University’s loss of integrity; anti-abortion protestors are planning demonstrations for the occasion. Other voices, in mixed chorus, support the University’s choice while raising essential questions about the nature and purpose of universities and what it means in this instance to be Catholic.
As a young priest, I was asked to continue my studies by pursuing a degree in Communications. The presumption was that I would attend Catholic University in Washington, D.C. I knew of Northwestern’s program back then in Public Address/Group Communication and suggested it as an option. “But that’s not a Catholic campus,” I was told. I argued then as I do today, “What difference does that make when it comes to learning? Can’t the Truth take care of itself?”
I learned at Northwestern that true learning is about questions, not answers, that Truth is something to be sought, not memorized, and that what is honestly true for one person may not be so for an other. The best universities, even those defined by faith, are, among other things, laboratories for truth-seekers. The quest for one’s own truth, whether of self or of belief, takes more than a lifetime, if one is open-minded. Speaking of which, shouldn’t the purpose of any university be to open minds, not close them? Cheer, Cheer for Old Notre Dame.
About being Catholic. A few weeks ago, a good friend asked me if I, knowing what I know today about religion, would choose to be Catholic. His question came out of nowhere and I blurted, “But that’s what I am.” “I know that, Charlie, but that is not what I’m asking,” he challenged, repeating the question that I have been living with ever since.
In light of the present controversy, I find it comfortable to answer, “Yes, I would choose to be Catholic, but one with questions, always. I refuse to be locked into answers that tell me not to question, not to wonder at, nurture, encourage and celebrate God’s gifts of curiosity and intellectual/scientific exploration, not to struggle to find the Truth because I am told it is a given.”
I have written elsewhere that the very best teachers are life-long learners who respect the voices of others questioning what they have to say. The Catholic Church — any church — as teacher needs to define its credibility by doing just that. Cheer, Cheer, for Old Notre Dame.
Afterword: If one needs a measure of their perception of my fall from grace as being Catholic, I was in the end-zone at ND when NU beat them in Northwestern’s Rose Bowl season, going crazy with the rest of the NU crowd.