What ‘Church’ does Notre Dame belong to?

Of all the commentary I’ve read on Notre Dame’s decision to invite President Obama to receive an honorary doctorate of laws as the university’s 2009 commencement speaker, the most disturbing came from Father Kenneth Himes of the Boston College theology department. In a Boston Globe story about Professor Mary Ann Glendon’s courageous (and correct) decision to decline Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal because the university had defied the U.S. bishops’ policy barring honors for pro-abortion politicians at Catholic events, Father Himes said this:

“There are some well-meaning people who think Notre Dame has given away its Catholic identity, because they have been caught up in the gamesmanship of American higher education, bringing in a star commencement speaker even if that means sacrificing their values, and that accounts for some of this …. But one also has to say that there is a political game going on here, and part of that is that you demonize the people who disagree with you, you question their integrity, you challenge their character, and you brand these people 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.”

I trust Father Himes is not referring here to Professor Glendon, or William McGurn of the Wall Street Journal, or Father Wilson Miscamble, CSC, of the Notre Dame faculty, or me, or other serious critics of Notre Dame’s decision. For if Father Himes is suggesting that any of us has demonized the president, branded him “moral poison,” reduced Catholicism to the abortion issue, or summoned a crusade to eliminate debate at Catholic colleges and universities, he is 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. By why does Father Himes waste time bashing fringe crazies? Why not engage the arguments of the serious critics? Why not attempt a theologically coherent defense of what seems an incomprehensible decision—awarding an honorary doctorate of laws to a man determined to enshrine in law something the Catholic Church regards as a gross violation of justice?

Another colleague (and Notre Dame grad), Professor Russell Hittinger, who holds the William K. Warren Chair in Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa, clarified one key facet of this controversy in an e-mail. Notre Dame, he suggested, has adopted a “purely American low-church position of [institutional] autonomy,” by acting as if the local bishop, John D’Arcy, has nothing to say to which the university must pay serious attention—although Bishop D’Arcy, a longtime Notre Dame booster, was speaking for the settled position of the American episcopate in asking the university’s president, Father John Jenkins, CSC, to reconsider his decision to honor Obama. As Professor Hittinger continued, this fracas “has nothing to do with academic freedom nor with ecclesiastical supervision of routine academic procedures and judgments. It is ecclesiological all the way down—what Church is Notre Dame ‘in,’ if any?… . Notre Dame is speaking and acting as though it were not a member of the local Church, let alone Rome.”

That’s exactly right. There’s also a high-stakes “political game” here, though not the one Father Himes suggests. The Obama administration is full of very smart political operators. Reading last November’s electoral entrails, they’ve 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 Obama received in 2008. And they’ve shrewdly judged that the soft underbelly of Catholic resistance to the Obama administration’s radical agenda on the life issues is composed of Catholic intellectuals, their prestige institutions (like Notre Dame and Georgetown), and their opinion journals—the very people and opinion centers who claimed last year that Obama was the true pro-life candidate. It’s a clever move on the political chessboard, and barring extraordinary actions from the bishops, it will likely meet with considerable success.

Politics aside, though, the crucial question remains this: just what Church are Notre Dame and its supporters “in,” anyway?

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.


Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.