Day of Reckoning

Author: R. Bruce Dold


My uncle, Bill Dold, didn’t graduate from Notre Dame. He was a student there in 1943, nice and safe in South Bend during the war, and since he hadn’t been drafted he could have finished out his studies. But that didn’t feel right to him. His country was fighting for freedom, and he wanted, needed, to be part of that fight.

So he left Notre Dame and enlisted in the Army Air Forces, where they taught him to be a gunner and assigned him to a crew on a Flying Fortress, the magnificent B-17.

On August 4, 1944, he was on his third mission. German gunners hit an Allied plane, and the Allied plane clipped his B-17 and crippled it. The crew had no choice. It had to bail out.

They were captured on a small island called Borkum just off the coast of Germany. They were marched through the town and down to the sea, and along the way they were beaten by the townspeople, pummeled mercilessly. And when they got to the sea, they were shot dead.

At the time, no one in the U.S. military knew what had happened. They knew only that a plane had gone down. When the officers came to my grandmother’s door she was the only one home. They told her that her son was missing in action. That’s all they could tell her.

She made it her secret. She didn’t tell her husband or their younger son. The son, my father, would hear her softly weeping at night. But he didn’t ask why, and she didn’t offer.

After the war ended, they learned what had happened. The New York newspapers called it the German Death March, and there was a war crimes trial and the mayor of Borkum and four German officers were sentenced to hang.

Bill Dold and his crewmates were buried at a military cemetery in Belgium. My uncle was 22.

A tradition

He didn’t graduate from Notre Dame, but he started a Notre Dame tradition. My father, Bruce, followed him there and graduated in 1953 with a degree in architecture. My sister Lisa graduated from Notre Dame in 1986.

My daughter Kristen followed her great-uncle and her grandfather and her aunt to Notre Dame, and on May 17 she graduated. She’s 22.

Near the end of the wondrous Commencement Mass in the Joyce Athletic and Convocation Center the day before graduation, my wife, Eileen, and I watched from the benches in Section 114 as 10 students solemnly carried an American flag down the center aisle and to the altar, where the flag was blessed.

And it all rushed together into tears. God, Country, Notre Dame.

God, Country and Notre Dame didn’t have an easy time of it in the weeks leading up to this 164th graduation.

The University announced in March that it had invited President Barack Obama to give the commencement address and that the president would receive an honorary doctorate of laws. Obama would be the sixth sitting U.S. president to speak at graduation at Notre Dame and the ninth to receive an honorary degree. From Eisenhower to Obama, now there’s a nice tradition.

Many Catholic leaders and lay people, though, were outraged at the decision to honor this president. Obama vigorously supports abortion rights. He has loosened rules for the federal funding of research using embryonic stem cells. He has revoked the policy that prohibited U.S. funding for overseas family-planning organizations. He has opposed legislation to outlaw so-called “partial-birth abortion.”

Dozens of bishops implored Notre Dame to rescind the invitation. Some of them were blunt. Cardinal Francis George of the Archdiocese of Chicago, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Notre Dame had caused “extreme embarrassment” to many Catholics. He said the University “didn’t understand what it means to be Catholic when they issued this invitation.”

The Most Rev. John D’Arcy, bishop of the diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend for 25 years, announced that he would not attend commencement and suggested that Notre Dame “has chosen prestige over truth.” Mary Ann Glendon, a former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, was to receive the university’s highest honor, the Laetare Medal, but she refused.

Overnight, it seemed, Notre Dame became the capital of America’s long and harsh and withering debate on abortion.

An airplane circled over campus day after day, trailing a banner that showed the bloody hand of a 10-week-old aborted fetus. A website,, offered an online petition calling for Notre Dame to rescind the invitation to Obama, and claimed that 367,000 people had electronically signed it. Anti-abortion protesters demonstrated at the entrance to campus, some pushing baby carriages with dolls covered in fake blood. Dozens of people were arrested.

“My goal is to make such a political mud pit that the president doesn’t want to walk through it to do the speech,” said Randall Terry, the founder of Operation Rescue, who was arrested during a protest two weeks before graduation.

On that count, Terry and the other protesters failed. Notre Dame did not rescind the invitation, and Obama didn’t flinch.

The great divide

The protests, though, pointed to the great divide in the Catholic Church over abortion — and to the question of how the Church should engage political leaders who support what has been established by the Supreme Court as a constitutional right.

Opponents of the decision to confer a degree on Obama cited the 2004 statement by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called “Catholics in Political Life.” The bishops’ statement declared: “The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.”

The statement, though, also said Catholics need to persuade public officials through “more effective dialogue and engagement.” It raised the question of whether Holy Communion should be denied to political leaders who support abortion — but it left that decision to individual bishops.

It also engendered a debate as to whether the bishops were referring only to Catholic politicians as those who should not be honored .

The news media saw this purely as an abortion debate — the pro-choice president comes to the pro-life Catholic university, chaos ensues. It was, though, much more a debate about the relationship between the Church and its premier universities. Specifically, a debate on two questions: What is the proper role in public life for a Catholic university, and could the Church expect to engage with leaders it refuses to hold in honor?

That was a much more illuminating debate than the one most people caught in news coverage of Obama at Notre Dame.

In a searing letter published in The Observer, 10 Holy Cross priests wrote that Notre Dame “pursues a dangerous course when it allows itself to decide for and by itself what part of being a Catholic institution it will choose to embrace.” The priests wrote that the decision to honor Obama has given reason to believe that Notre Dame’s stance against abortion was “weak and easily trumped by other considerations.”

Other considerations? The priests didn’t spell out what that meant, but it was easy to hazard a guess. That “prestige” factor. Some people argued that Notre Dame was forsaking its principles out of a desire for attention. The sentiment: Notre Dame wasn’t just inviting a president, it was inviting a rock-star president. The school wanted to enjoy a bit of his aura, regardless of his views on the sanctity of life. It had, in short, succumbed to the sin of vanity.

Commencement did have the feel of a rock-star event, starting from the moment Air Force One, on its approach to South Bend Airport, buzzed the students who were waiting to go through security outside the JACC.

Teaching moment

But what a teaching moment it turned out to be. And what an affirming moment for the eminent role Notre Dame plays in the Church and in American society.

At commencement, I could not have been more proud to be a Notre Dame parent, or more certain of the wisdom of Kristen’s decision four years ago to come here.

The graduates heard a gem of a speech from Obama. If his 2004 Democratic Convention speech introduced him to the nation, and his 2008 speech in Philadelphia defined the nation’s 21st century struggle with race, his address at Notre Dame served as a president’s most honest address about his late embrace of Christianity.

The most profound words at commencement, though, belonged to Rev. John Jenkins, CSC, Notre Dame’s president, who examined how a Catholic university can be a place for significant inquiry and be true to its faith, and why Notre Dame has to fulfill both of those missions.

For my money, this was Father Jenkins’ finest moment in the four years he has been president of Notre Dame.

It’s worth viewing his entire speech. Here’s the essence of what he had to say:

“As we serve the Church, we can persuade believers by appeals to both faith and reason. As we serve our country, we will be motivated by faith, but we cannot appeal only to faith. We must also engage in a dialogue that appeals to reason that all can accept. . . .

“Genuine faith does not inhibit the use of reason; it purifies it of pride and distorting self-interest. As it does so, Pope Benedict has said, ’human reason is emboldened to pursue its noble purpose of serving mankind, giving expression to our deepest common aspirations and extending . . . public debate.’. . .

“As we all know, a great deal of attention has surrounded President Obama’s visit to Notre Dame. We honor all people of goodwill who have come to this discussion respectfully and out of deeply held conviction,” Jenkins continued.

“Most of the debate has centered on Notre Dame’s decision to invite and honor the president. Less attention has been focused on the president’s decision to accept.

“President Obama has come to Notre Dame though he knows well that we are fully supportive of Church teaching on the sanctity of human life, and we oppose his policies on abortion and embryonic stem cell research.

“Others might have avoided this venue for that reason. But President Obama is not someone who stops talking to those who differ with him.

“Mr. President: This is a principle we share.

“As the fathers of the Second Vatican Council wrote in their pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes: ‘Respect and love ought to be extended also to those who think or act differently than we do in social, political and even religious matters. In fact, the more deeply we come to understand their ways of thinking through such courtesy and love, the more easily will we be able to enter into dialogue with them.’

“If we want to extend courtesy, respect and love — and enter into dialogue — then surely we can start by acknowledging what is honorable in others.”

Respect — and opposition

Perhaps Father Jenkins didn’t change many minds among those who were so critical of Notre Dame’s decision to invite Obama. But he should have. His address made clear that Notre Dame was being true to the advice of the bishops’ conference. It had honored the president, but not in any way that “would suggest support” for the president’s actions on abortion.

The president heard that this Catholic university welcomed him, respected him . . . and vigorously opposed him on this fundamental issue.

The appropriateness of inviting Obama divided many Catholics. But, of course, they were already divided. There is a significant divide between the Church’s most devout followers and those who are at the greatest risk of being permanently alienated from the Church. And that divide is going to have a profound impact on the future vitality of the Church in the United States.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently reported that Catholicism has lost more followers to other religions, or to no religion, than any other religious group in recent years.

Pew found that 50 percent of Catholics thought Notre Dame was right to invite Obama, but only 37 percent who attend church weekly thought it was right. Perhaps that’s not a surprise. Pew found that 47 percent of Catholics thought abortion should be legal in most or all cases, but only 30 percent who attend church weekly thought so. There was a similar gap on embryonic stem-cell research.

So what is the Church to do, the Church that has so many members who decline to follow its teaching on abortion? Does it engage them on this issue, or does it refuse to honor those with whom they agree? The laity has an answer: 54 percent of Catholics who voted in the last presidential election honored Barack Obama with their vote.

It’s a shame that, beyond the walls of the Joyce Center, all the attention to Obama’s speech focused on abortion, because there was so much more to it. He made great effort to honor the social service tradition of the Catholic Church and Notre Dame.

Obama noted that 80 percent of the senior class had volunteered in at least one service project at schools, hospitals and relief agencies. He spoke of Father Ted Hesburgh’s courageous work on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

In turn, the University presented Obama with a framed copy of the iconic photo of Father Hesburgh linking arms with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a 1964 civil rights rally at Soldier Field in Chicago.

That photo generates broad admiration today. But Hesburgh’s prominent roles in civil rights, in opposition to the Vietnam War and on other public issues were controversial in their day, too. Forty-two years ago, he prompted a storm within the Church when Notre Dame and other Catholic universities declared that to perform their teaching and research mission they “must have a true autonomy and academic freedom.”

That’s the university we encouraged Kristen to attend.

The ND community

We encouraged her because we knew she would find a community at Notre Dame that was closer and more genuine and more lasting than at any other university in the land. We knew she would never be alone, that at Notre Dame someone would always be there to listen — a priest, a teacher, a friend. We knew she would be taught to think critically and to affirm and enhance her faith in God. And Notre Dame delivered, from freshman orientation right on through graduation day.

She has graduated from one of the great universities in the country. And she has graduated with the firm belief that no other university would have been as good for her. None. And now it will be up to her to make good on the gift she has been given.

At a skit the seniors put on for their class the Thursday night before graduation, one student said, “Father Jenkins told us that among the members of the incoming class, the average high school GPA was 4.2 and the average SAT score was 1700. Also, 124 were high school valedictorians, 1,997 were varsity athletes, 60 have medaled in one or more Olympic sports and eight are former U.S. presidents. Additionally there are 47 state champions, 12 black belts, five magicians, 27 Nobel laureates and the progeny of Joe Montana.”

That’s just a joke. Really. But it made the point: Notre Dame is a different place.

The lights are no longer turned out across the entire campus at 10 p.m., as they were in my father’s day. Still, it’s a different place. The seniors laugh now about dorm parietals and about having to pass a swimming test. They don’t have those sorts of rules at USC or Wisconsin.

The students didn’t laugh about them when they were freshmen. But the seniors — okay, this is a survey of one senior and several of her friends, but let’s call that scientific — feel a special bond because they had such a unique college experience.

“Something else happened sophomore year, something that we barely even noticed,” another student said. “When I got back to campus after winter break, my dad called to ask if I had made the drive safely. I said, ‘Yeah, Dad, I’m home.’ And that was it. Sophomore year this place became home. Our friends became family and our dorms became more than just buildings. And our lives have never been the same since.”

That’s from the seniors’ skit, too. That’s not a joke.

Also on that Thursday before graduation, the seniors named Father Jenkins as their Senior Class Fellow. He reminded them that they arrived as freshmen right about when he became president. He said they’d all probably done some “stupid things” over the last four years, but he was immensely proud of them, particularly of how they had handled themselves during the controversy over Obama’s appearance.

And they had every reason to be proud, both those students who three days later would enthusiastically cheer Obama at the Joyce Center and those students who would skip commencement and hold their own solemn and respectful ceremony at the Grotto.

The weekend for us came together in a wonderfully exhausting series of dinners and parties with Kristen’s seven housemates, other friends and their parents and extended families. The parents kidded that we’d see each other next at our daughters’ weddings . . . which may turn out to be true, though in her group there were no rings by spring.

It was a three-day lovefest of smiles and hugs and pictures and college stories (some best not to have been heard earlier), and the common sentiment that it was impossible to believe four years had passed since we had come together for freshman orientation weekend.

And then it was over and everyone went home.

Notre Dame has had presidents at commencement before this year. But it had never before had one of my children, and I think that was a common sentiment. She joined a family tradition by coming to Notre Dame, a tradition started by her great-uncle Bill. That was important to us and to her. But even more important to all of us, she found a second family that will have an ever-enduring bond.

R. Bruce Dold is the editorial page editor of the Chicago Tribune.