Saying that Notre Dame is acting as if it is not a member of the local Church in its response to the controversy, Catholic commentator George Weigel has charged that "political operators" in the Obama administration are trying to divide Catholics from their bishops by co-opting Catholic intellectuals and their institutions.
In his May 13 column in the Denver Catholic Register, Weigel noted Boston College theology professor Fr. Kenneth Himes’ charge that there is a "political game" going on in the dispute over the University of Notre Dame’s commencement invitation to President Barack Obama.
Fr. Hines had commented in a Boston Globe story about former Ambassador to the Vatican Mary Ann Glendon’s decision to decline Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal.
He granted that some "well-meaning people" think Notre Dame has given away its Catholic identity. However, he also warned of a "political game" which results in demonizing those who disagree with you, questioning their integrity and character, and branding them as "moral poison."
"Some people have simply reduced Catholicism to the abortion issue, and consequently, they have simply launched a crusade to bar anything from Catholic institutions that smacks of any sort of open conversation," he said in the Boston Globe.
Responding to Fr. Himes, Weigel said if Fr. Hines was referring to the leading critics of President Obama’s Notre Dame honors, the priest was "perilously close" to committing calumny.
"Yes, there are self-serving nuts in the forest, some of whom have seized the Obama/Notre Dame issue for their own purposes," Weigel said. "But why does Father Himes waste time bashing fringe crazies? Why not engage the arguments of the serious critics?"
Weigel cited as one such critic Notre Dame graduate Prof. Russell Hittinger, a professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa.
Hittinger has said that Notre Dame has adopted a "purely American low-church" position of institutional autonomy by acting as if its local bishop is not worthy of attention.
The Obama controversy, Hittinger said, has nothing to do with academic freedom or ecclesiastical supervision but is "ecclesiological all the way down."
"What Church is Notre Dame ‘in,’ if any?" Hittinger asked. "Notre Dame is speaking and acting as though it were not a member of the local Church, let alone Rome."
Weigel said this comment was "exactly right," alleging that the actual "political game" is being played by "very smart political operators" in the Obama administration.
He charged that these operators, noting the presidential election results, have sensed the possibility of "driving a wedge through the Catholic community in America, dividing Catholics from their bishops and thus securing the majority Catholic vote."
Weigel said they are targeting Catholic intellectuals and their institutions and journals, which he described as "the soft underbelly" of Catholic resistance to the Obama administration’s "radical agenda."
"It’s a clever move on the political chessboard, and barring extraordinary actions from the bishops, it will likely meet with considerable success," Weigel continued.
He closed by again reiterating the question: "Just what Church are Notre Dame and its supporters ‘in,’ anyway?"