Acton Institute Powerblog

Notre Dame, Georgetown and President Obama

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The Detroit News published a column yesterday that I wrote about Catholic identity and the controversies sparked by President Obama’s visit to Georgetown and his planned speech at Notre Dame. National Review Online also published a variation of the same column last week under the title, The Catholic Identity Crisis.

Here’s the Detroit News column:

President Barack Obama made an interesting comment on economics during his April 14 speech at Georgetown University. “We cannot rebuild this economy on the same pile of sand,” he said. “We must build our house upon a rock.”

I doubt anyone would accuse him of plagiarizing here, but what he is paraphrasing came from Jesus’ parable. The man who built the house on sand paid the price. The winds took down the house. The man who built on stone enjoyed a house that withstood the storm.

It is quite appropriate that the parable was quoted at this Catholic university founded by Jesuits. Crucifixes, statues of Mary and other religious items are everywhere, revealing the rich tradition here.

Oddly, the president’s advance team insisted that all religious symbols be covered in the place in which he was speaking. Incredibly, Georgetown officials complied. At the request of the White House, university officials placed a cover over the letters IHS — the Greek abbreviation for the name of Jesus — during the president’s recent talk there.

This incident follows the ongoing uproar over Obama’s planned speech at Notre Dame, where he will be given an honorary doctorate, because of his pro-choice social policies.

What is happening is that political realities are capitalizing on a cultural shift and may be causing a Catholic identity crisis.

In the past half-century, Catholics have overcome a hostile culture and been assimilated, along with their own institutions. So complete has been this assimilation that on almost any matter of public policy or lifestyle choices, Catholics are indistinguishable from other Americans — until comparing regular practitioners with the nominally faithful.

It may not be farfetched to assert that there is an identity crisis among nominal Catholics, who are embarrassed by the distinctiveness of their more faithful brethren who hold to fast days, don’t approve of abortion and think marriage is what their grandparents thought it was, among other hot-button questions.

Of course, nominal Catholics would deny such an identity crisis. They may simply believe in a pluralistic and tolerant society.

But if the religious family that was once the church’s leading defender is willing to blot out the very name that is their own name (Jesuit), and their historic inspiration, please tell me what would constitute an identity crisis.

Think of it: A Catholic university was willing to cover up the name of Jesus, hide it from the cameras, because the president was coming and his advance team asked university officials to do so. The fact alone gives me chills.

At the root of tolerance is the notion that one is permissive about the beliefs of those with whom one precisely does not agree. If you do not know who you are and what you hold to be true, you cannot be tolerant.

We have come to the point in our society that the most significant contribution Georgetown or Notre Dame could make to society’s diversity would be to become, once again, Catholic and not be embarrassed about it.

The Catholic Church and the Jesuits in particular (such as the infamous case of the persecution, torture and execution of Edmund Campion by England’s Queen Elizabeth I) have in their own history heroic examples of martyrs willing to die for the faith and those very same martyrs refusing to submit to secular authority.

The least these campus authorities could do would be not to take active measures to undermine their own identity — as if the faith that inspired their existence were a mere add-on that could be easily covered over.

Rev. Robert Sirico Rev. Robert A. Sirico received his Master of Divinity degree from the Catholic University of America, following undergraduate study at the University of Southern California and the University of London. During his studies and early ministry, he experienced a growing concern over the lack of training religious studies students receive in fundamental economic principles, leaving them poorly equipped to understand and address today's social problems. As a result of these concerns, Fr. Sirico co-founded the Acton Institute with Kris Alan Mauren in 1990. As president of the Acton Institute, Fr. Sirico lectures at colleges, universities, and business organizations throughout the U.S. and abroad. His writings on religious, political, economic, and social matters are published in a variety of journals, including: the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, the London Financial Times, the Washington Times, the Detroit News, and National Review. Fr. Sirico is often called upon by members of the broadcast media for statements regarding economics, civil rights, and issues of religious concern, and has provided commentary for CNN, ABC, the BBC, NPR, and CBS' 60 Minutes, among others. In April of 1999, Fr. Sirico was awarded an honorary doctorate in Christian Ethics from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, and in May of 2001, Universidad Francisco Marroquin awarded him an honorary doctorate in Social Sciences. He is a member of the prestigious Mont Pèlerin Society, the American Academy of Religion, and the Philadelphia Society, and is on the Board of Advisors of the Civic Institute in Prague. Father Sirico also served on the Michigan Civil Rights Commission from 1994 to 1998. He is also currently serving on the pastoral staff of Sacred Heart of Jesus parish in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Fr. Sirico's pastoral ministry has included a chaplaincy to AIDS patients at the National Institute of Health and the recent founding of a new community, St. Philip Neri House in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


  • AnPiobaire

    It is apparently untrue that, “the president’s advance team insisted that all religious symbols be covered in the place in which he was speaking”. It seems they asked that the school symbols be covered on the stage in favor of the backdrop they were constructing, American flags, etc.

    From what I’ve heard, still visible above that stage setting were the Jesuit motto, stained glass windows with religious themes and a large number of plaques around the room adorned with the “IHS” symbol.

    That one symbol was covered because it was on the top of a wood structure that was being almost entirely blocked from view by the backdrop being put in place, with only that top part where the symbol was looming over that stage setting. The decorators apparently thought that partially shown fixture clashed esthetically with the rest of the stage set.

    There was no outwardly imposed or self-censorship involved; this was merely an innocent by-product of putting the stage setting in place for the event.

    Sorry if the facts don’t suit your agenda.

    Please stop the witch hunt.

  • Father Robert Sirico

    It is true that the White House did not require Georgetown to cover all religious symbols in the auditorium. The requirement was for, as I wrote originally in the article, “in the place in which he was speaking,” that is, on the stage where he was speaking.

    This conjecture was based upon what the spokesperson for the university said to the press:

    “In coordinating the logistical arrangements for yesterday’s event, Georgetown honored the White House staff’s request to cover all of the Georgetown University signage and symbols behind Gaston Hall stage,” Julie Green Bataille, associate vice president for communications at Georgetown, told

    “The White House wanted a simple backdrop of flags and pipe and drape for the speech, consistent with what they’ve done for other policy speeches,” she added. “Frankly, the pipe and drape wasn’t high enough by itself to fully cover the IHS and cross above the GU seal and it seemed most respectful to have them covered so as not to be seen out of context.”

    I am quite comfortable with the facts as they stand in the case of Georgetown, which when combined with what his administration is doing at Notre Dame along with the Biden speech at Georgetown – all in defiance of the US Bishops’ explicit instruction – show the president to be a divider, not the uniting force he claimed to want to be.

    Fr. Robert Sirico

  • Thewitchisonthehunt

    It is obvious that what was covered up was done because the “devil and his legions” cannot stand the sight of them. It is a darn shame that good schools have gone bad(and cowardly).

  • Joe DeVet

    Georgetown and Notre Dame have for some time lost (discarded willfully, really) their Catholic identity. It’s perfectly in character, and not surprising in this context, that they should welcome this minion of the Culture of Death.

  • MaryAnn

    That Catholics, whether at universities in politics or sitting in the pews at their churches, are being challenged to stand up for their faith and their Church is a good thing. Our present culture is forcing people to examine who they are and what they believe in.It is separating the wheat from the chafe. It’s a good thing. I believe that Jesus taught us that the road to damnation is wide and easy, the road to salvation narrow and difficult; few people will make it on the narrow, difficult road. We all need to pray for our Church.

  • Millie Stephens

    I am not catholic, but I don’t think anyone should turn his back on Christ for any reason. Even the symbols that come to represent our Lord. These school should stand for their beliefs and forget about being politically correct. STAND UP for your beliefs, STAND UP FOR CHRIST. He is standing up for you! Why can’t you do the same. If Obama or his team, which he likes to hide behind, wants to cover the cross, SHOW THEM THE DOOR. This man has so many people fooled, but the Devil has great disguises, doesn’t he…America beware. You asked for it, you got it…I will surely pray for this nation and the mess that he will take us into.

  • Lisa Keuhlen

    “perhaps it’s just that nominal Catholics are in sync with “…a pluralistic and tolerant society”.

    Maryland,founded as a refuge for Catholics, tried tolerance when they invited the Puritans who had been banished from Virginia to ‘help populate’ the province. In the Battle of 1659 the Puritans defeated the government forcing Catholics out of the government and imposing penalties, extra taxes, etc on the Catholics.

    No need for a battle now, we’re just rolling over and NOT DEFENDING The Faith my fathers and mothers defended over the centuries!!! I’m thinking of all those who gave their lives in defense of The Faith. I’ve always felt so grateful to them.