Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Why Richard Garnett is Wrong

A hat tip to CMR for the link to this, by Richard Garnett, in defense of Notre Dame:
As I made clear in my initial contribution to this NRO symposium, I believe that the University of Notre Dame should not, at this time, honor President Obama with a ceremonial degree and the commencement-speaker role. To say this is not to deny that there are things about his election and achievements that a meaningfully Catholic university — and, to be clear, Notre Dame is such a university — could and should celebrate. Under the circumstances, though — so soon after the president's insultingly bad statement regarding embryo-destructive research (in which he reduced moral critique to "politics") — it seems to me that there is no way to avoid the impression that Notre Dame is un-bothered (even though we are) by his deeply unjust actions. And, unfortunately, there are reasons to worry that the controversy surrounding the president's presentation and presence will distract attention from, and celebration of, the conferring of the (richly conserved) Laetare Medal on Prof. Mary Ann Glendon.

All that said, this is not the time for the tiresome anti-Notre Dame screeds that too often clutter the Catholic and conservative corners of the Internet. Some who are outraged, gathering signatures, demanding changes, and pointing fingers have long since given up — mistakenly — on Notre Dame. For them, Notre Dame's purpose is simply to serve as a convenient target. For many of Notre Dame's cyber-critics, her many achievements and successes are invisible; her mission is unappreciated or not-understood; her failures are cause for celebration, not constructive criticism.

These critics are wrong. This should not be an occasion for fundraising, grandstanding, or attention-grabbing by self-interested activists. Again, Notre Dame matters, and it is precisely because it still is meaningfully Catholic that its mistakes are disappointing. It's easy for [insert name here] Completely Pure Catholic College (or blogger) to avoid dilemmas (and mistakes) like Notre Dame's, because no one cares about that College (or blogger). Notre Dame's challenge is more difficult. We should want, and be willing to help, her to succeed.

Let's unpack this a bit, shall we?

First, I can't quite agree that a meaningfully Catholic university ought to be celebrating "certain things about Barack Obama's election and achievements" so soon after that election, and before those achievements have really started to happen. I know, I'm ignoring the "historic first biracial President" context in stating that, but I can't quite balance the historicity of that aspect against the "historic first pro-infanticide openly pro-abortion President" aspect. Moreover, while I hate to be hyper critical, Garnett seems to be giving the impression that it is the timing of this invitation, not the mere fact of it, which is problematic here--that inviting Obama so soon after the ESCR debacle is going to give the appearance that Notre Dame doesn't care about the injustice of using unwanted IVF children as spare parts for research. I'm glad Garnett speaks for the University when he says that "we are" bothered by Obama's actions--but I'm not completely sure who he means by "we," when all is said and done.

The second paragraph lunges into "methinks the gentleman doth protest too much" territory. One would think, reading that paragraph, that conservative Catholic bloggers use Notre Dame as the punch line of every scheduled Tuesday screed (honestly; hasn't Garnett noticed that it's the Jesuits, not Notre Dame, who have this dubious honor)? And while I'll cheerfully admit to having long since given up on Notre Dame, which is second only to Georgetown in my mind in the category of "Universities which remember they are Catholic when it is convenient, and suffer an equally convenient form of religious amnesia when it's not," I'll also admit that Notre Dame has very little to do with me, personally, as I come from a long line of Catholics who a) couldn't afford it and b) didn't much care for college football. It's not as though I sit, with poisoned pixels dripping in anticipation, just waiting for Notre Dame to make some slight mistake so I can gleefully tear it down; Notre Dame is doing a pretty good job of tearing itself down, and on occasion I'm going to note that fact, the way I note other examples of cultural decline. And I'm pretty sure that other conservative Catholic bloggers feel the same, more or less.

It's the third paragraph where Garnett gets down to what for him is probably the crux of the matter. Notre Dame, he insists for the second or third time, really truly is still Catholic, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. Moreover, Notre Dame really matters, not like those third-rate academically hidebound "pure" Catholic colleges with their faculty Fidelity Pledges and their open, stated commitments to orthodoxy and their embarrassingly large turnouts for the March for Life in DC every January. Those tiny colleges could be making mistakes or encountering dilemmas at every turn, but who would care? They don't get into trouble, no matter how many pro-abort presidents or congresspeople they invite and honor and give honorary degrees to and...


...well, but Notre Dame has to invite and honor those kinds of people, because Notre Dame matters, you see. The tiny Catholic colleges are free to be "pure" because it's still possible for them to put their Catholic faith and their Catholic identity ahead of everything else, but Notre Dame doesn't have that luxury, because Notre Dame has to succeed, in order to attract the attention of people who ordinarily wouldn't give a Catholic institution the time of day but who are drawn in by Notre Dame's prestige, but the price of that prestige is that sometimes you have to honor Presidents who think killing really small people is a terrific idea and is willing to put the whole force of the federal government behind that idea, and....


...but anyway, forget all that, Catholics should still support Notre Dame. Even small Catholic bloggers. Because...because it's Notre Dame!

This Catholic blogger would be happy to support Notre Dame, if Notre Dame were happy to live up to its Catholic identity. Otherwise...well, I reserve the right to get all screed-y and tiresome. The eventual collapse of a once-great university brought on by its abandonment to its core identity and its moral principles would be a tragedy--but the tragedy is not the fault of those who commented on its tendency to stray from this identity and these principles when there was still time for the university to change.


Anonymous said...

Agreed. I couldn't believe how self-congratulatory and self-righteous his comments were. If you a) Go to the full article he references, he's even worse, mentioning "matters" at least a half dozen times, then b) Go to his Mirror of Justice post, he's even worse than that, actually mocking another college - Christendom College - in comparison to Notre Dame.

I just finished college at a Jesuit University last summer, and for all the awfulness and post-Catholic attitudes of the entire University, they really don't hold a candle to the pompous asses of Notre Dame. At least the Jesuits aren't so terrified of poor people that they need to locate their schools hundreds of miles from human civilization.

Anonymous said...

I would check out Emily's thoughts over at Shrine of the Holy Whapping.

--Elizabeth B.

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous at 8:31: He wasn't mocking Christendom College. He was criticizing the mindset that the only kind of Catholic University should be exactly like Christendom, and that every place like ND should be written off. I think it was a perfectly valid point--and I attended Christendom College.

ND's Catholic identity is not exclusively determined by its heterodox elements. There are students and faculty there who are working hard to return ND to a full Catholic identity. Should their efforts be written off because they have not yet been successful? Absolutely not. They deserve our support and, especially in this case, our sympathy.

--Elizabeth B.

Scott W. said...


Respectfully, Garnett's went into rant mode. Who are these internet denizens for whom "Notre Dame's purpose is simply to serve as a convenient target."? He never says. I'm sure he could scare up an example, but then we'd have the question, are the representative, or failing that, are they at least worth taking seriously? Again, maybe he could show an example of attempts of "gathering signatures, demanding changes, and pointing fingers", but how is he so sure they are wrong or have bad motives? I would need to be convinced he cares about such questions as opposed to just using a bunch of bad internet people out there somewhere as convenient stick to help fill out a blog entry. Maybe I'm being too much of an Algebra teacher, but I want to see his math.

Anonymous said...

Scott W., I actually agree that Garnett was in rant mode. I don't think I wrote anything that implied agreement with the totality of his statement (in fact, I think much of Red's critique of it is pretty much on target). I just wanted to point out that he wasn't actually mocking Christendom College.

I agree with Garnett, though, that it's not a good idea to write off places like Notre Dame. We hear about them inviting Obama to speak because it is such a terrible decision (and the outrage over the decision is justified). But you have to dig a little deeper to find out about good things that are happening at ND--and there are good things. The Franciscan University of Steubenville wasn't a bastion of orthodoxy, say 20 years ago. It turned itself around. Such things are possible. There is a Catholic college near my home that is showing significant signs of a growing orthdodox Catholic presence among faculty and students.

And, for the record, I saw significant numbers of ND students at the March for Life. I didn't attempt to count them, but they were in a decently large group.

Anonymous said...

Drink up that kool-aid, Elizabeth. He was indeed mocking Christendom College or, at the very least, mocking people who prefer Christendom College to a heterodox school like Notre Dame. It was repulsive, indefensible and he should be a man and apologize for it.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous at 7:58. I have not drunk any kool-aid. It's just that I try to be fair even to those I disagree with. All I'm going to offer to you is Garnett's quote in which he mentions Christendom College. Here it is:

"I am quite put off by the 'Christendom College is the only way to go! Notre Dame sux! No real Catholics go to Notre Dame' crowd's reaction to all this."

The idea that ND is no longer Catholic at all, and should be written off and abandoned by anyone sincere about their faith is what he is talking about here.

--Elizabeth B.