A few days ago Hunter Baker asked

why the Bishop couldn’t just force Notre Dame president Father Jenkins to

rescind the invitation.  I thought it was

a great question.  He could…but he

didn’t.  In this case, it appears as though president Jenkins and

the Board held up the values of precedent (inviting U.S. Presidents to speak) and academic

freedom instead of acting out of their well-trained, Catholic-informed worldview

instincts which says that caring for others human persons is a sacred trust from cradle to

grave, and that that conviction must be modeled in all aspects of a university education, including commencement ceremonies.  Yes, I understand that Father

Jenkins has said repeatedly that he disagrees with President Obama’s stance on

abortion.  Still, you can’t take people

in slices, especially with the conferral of a doctorate from an institution

like Notre Dame.  The conferral of that

award is upon the WHOLE person…not just the parts of the person with which we

happen to agree.  The young Notre Dame

alums understand this well, which is why we heard the echoes of their outcry

for ecclesiastical and institutional mission consistency.  They knew that the Board and administration

were, at their core, being utterly inconsistent with the university’s

ecclesiastical authority on a mission-critical principle. 

Many evangelical colleges and

universities suffer from this kind of confusion even more, I think, because

unlike Catholics whose church teachings and traditions remain unified worldwide,

the various evangelical Protestant traditions are all over the map with respect

to what constitutes a properly formed worldview.  As a Presbyterian who has worked alongside

Catholics, I get it that just because you’re Catholic it doesn’t follow that

you adhere to all the Church’s doctrine’s or that you agree with all that is

contained in the encyclicals.  A few of

my co-presbyters take exception to a few of the points in the Westminster

Confession of Faith, so I understand that disagreement is part of what it means

to live in the body together. My point is that at least there are undisputed universal Church standards in

the Catholic tradition, unlike the splintering of doctrines and values we find

across Protestantism and evangelicalism. 

E.g.,  Notre Dame’s president

Jenkins at least had a papal document to which he could refer, Ex Corde Ecclesia (1990), which asserts

that presidents of Catholic universities "should take an oath of fidelity

to the Catholic Church and that teachers should be faithful to and respect

Catholic doctrine and morals in their research and teaching." One would

expect that the Church’s clarity on this point would translate to a heavy

emphasis placed on faculty and administrators embodying those values to

students.  And, indeed, many do just


As an aside, it seems to me that

President Obama knows how to talk to millennials.  This generation wants what’s “real,” or at

least they say they do.  He didn’t try to

hide from the tension in the crowd that day—he addressed it head-on.  Even though I wish Fr. Jenkins had rescinded

the invitation (or had never issued it in the first place), this aspect of

President Obama’s address was somewhat refreshing to me.  He acknowledged the deep divide instead of

trying to hide from it or pretend it wasn’t there.  Colleges and universities who have long been

on a slippery slope to some kind of Christian-but-we-don’t-to-offend-anyone

type ethos would do well to take notes on this part of Obama’s playbook.  The millennials want straight talk, so give

it to them. 

Back to the main point.  If Christian colleges and universities are

serious about educating Christianly for the sake of God’s redemption over all

of creation, we must model the right values for these millennial students.  Let’s get real—institutional renewal is

needed in far too many colleges that dare claim the name “Christian.”  But what is institutional renewal

anyway?  Wake Forest president Nat Hatch has reminded us that the late Ernest Boyer, former chancellor

of the State University of New York and United

States Commissioner of Education, once said that there is no such thing as

institutional renewal; there is only people renewal.  I suspect President Obama would agree with me

on that.  But then we would have to have

a lengthy discussion about the ends towards which renewal is actually

aimed.  How many students at evangelical

colleges feel the same way about how their institutions’ missions are being carried

out?  To be sure, I am personally aware

of evangelical colleges and universities who are doing a stellar job of doing what they say

they will do with respect to modeling character, teaching the Christian

intellectual tradition, casting a compelling faith, learning, & living-type vision for the future, etc.  In fact I am honored to work under the

auspices of a degree-granting institution of that sort.  But I am also

certain that there are far too few who are serious about it.