Five days after Fr. Norman Weslin’s death, the University of Notre Dame joined 42 Catholic groups in religious liberty lawsuits against the Obama Administration.
Father Norman Weslin left this life behind on May 16th. He will not be easily forgotten. He did something that many on the outer fringes of leftist religion in America wish he had done three years ago. He went quietly, something that he was not at all accustomed to doing in this life. I am proud to say that Father Norman Weslin is forever present on These Stone Walls in an image that I cannot erase from my mind’s eye of late. The image is an enduring Catholic scandal.
One of my TSW posts, “The Last Full Measure of Devotion: Civil Rights and the Right to Life,” featured a haunting and now famous image of the nearly 80-year-old Father Weslin being arrested for a pro-life protest on the campus of a major American Catholic University in 2009. Juxtaposed next to that haunting image is a photo taken simultaneously of a triumphant President Barack Obama bestowed with an honorary degree by the president of the University of Notre Dame after delivering the Catholic school’s 2009 Commencement Address.
That photo of the elderly Father Weslin on the ground being arrested for his protest is a monument to the greatness of this quiet priest. The image says everything that needs to be said, for Father Norman Weslin, above all, departed faithfully, having served his Lord, his Church and his faith with the last full measure of devotion. Father Frank Pavone of Priests for Life, about whom I wrote in “The Duty of a Priest,” wrote of Father Weslin’s death that “our loss is Heaven’s gain.”
He wrote that Father Norman Weslin believed “that a priest’s place was not behind his people, lending encouragement, but out in front, leading the way.” As a result, Father Weslin spent many days and nights in jail, as did John the Baptist and the Apostles. That scene at Notre Dame three years ago will prove itself to be a proud and defining moment for the Catholic Church in America. As one writer put it succinctly at the Voices Carry blog:
“While the millstone of Notre Dame is placed around [our President's] neck and 12,000 at Notre Dame stand giving a thunderous ovation, all Heaven stood to honor an 80-year old priest as he received Heaven’s high honor for peacefully taking a stand for life and the plight of the unborn . . . That little jail around the neck of this bound man of God is a high honor in the kingdom of God.”
Father Norman Weslin was arrested that day in May, 2009, because the University of Notre Dame opted to disregard the U.S. Bishops’ 2004 instruction that Catholic colleges and institutions “should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles,” and that such persons “should not be given awards, honors, or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.”
As I wrote in “The Last Full Measure of Devotion,” Father Norman Weslin was not the only person arrested for “trespass” on that Catholic campus that day in May, 2009:
“And you may not know the name, Norma McCorvey. She’s better known as ‘Jane Roe,’ the plaintiff in the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. Norma became a Catholic in 1998 and is now a staunch pro-life activist. She is the author of the book, Won By Love (Thomas Nelson, 1998). In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a petition by Norma McCorvey to reverse Roe v. Wade. In May 2009, she was among the Catholic protestors arrested at the University of Notre Dame during President Obama’s Commencement address.”
THE LAETARE MEDAL & MARY ANN GLENDON’S METTLE
That same year at Notre Dame, former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See and Harvard Law School Professor Mary Ann Glendon was to be honored by Notre Dame as its 133rd recipient of the Laetare Medal, the most prestigious honor bestowed upon an American Catholic. The award was established at Notre Dame in 1883 to honor a Catholic “whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the Church, and enriched the heritage of humanity.”
That characterizes no one in our era more than Mary Ann Glendon. Previous Laetare Medal recipients include President John F. Kennedy and Supreme Court Justice William Brennan. It was an apt recognition of Ambassador Glendon who also served the Church as President of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences and Papal Delegate to the United Nations Conference on the Status of Women in Beijing.
Late in March of 2009, Thomas Peters of the American Papist blog published a letter from Bishop Thomas Olmstead of Phoenix to Father John Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, citing his decision to grant the clearly pro-abortion President Obama an honorary degree. Bishop Olmstead described that choice as “a public act of disobedience to the Bishops of the United States.”
Then, three weeks before the Notre Dame Commencement, Mary Ann Glendon put her responsibilities to her faith before all other considerations. In a stunning manifestation of the very honor that the Laetare Medal represents, she refused it. In so doing, she cited the “talking points” issued by Notre Dame in response to the growing criticism of its Presidential honorary degree. These “talking points,” meant to fend off legitimate Catholic concerns about Notre Dame’s actions, included:
“President Obama won’t be doing all the talking. Mary Ann Glendon, the former Ambassador to the Vatican, will be speaking as the recipient of the Laetare Medal.”
“We think having the President come to Notre Dame, see our graduates, meet our leaders, and hear a talk from Mary Ann Glendon is a good thing for the President and for the causes we care about.”
By declining to accept the Laetare Medal under those circumstances, and with those conditions as set forth by Notre Dame, Mary Ann Glendon resuscitated the award’s very meaning and salvaged its worth for future recipients. The University of Notre Dame would do well to admit its grave error, to re-nominate Mary Ann Glendon for the Laetare Medal, and to award it in an atmosphere commensurate with the Catholic fidelity which the Laetare Medal signifies, and which Mary Ann Glendon so very clearly exemplifies.
For it turned out, after all, that “the causes we care about,” as set forth-in Notre Dame’s smarmy “talking points,” were not at all secure under this President’s Administration. There is a lot of irony in what follows.
NOTRE DAME AND THE BISHOPS TOGETHER
Just five days after the heroic Father Norman Weslin died last month, the University of Notre Dame and 42 other Catholic dioceses and institutions sued the Obama Administration in federal court. The lawsuit presented by Notre Dame alleged that “The government . . . cannot justify its decision to force Notre Dame to provide, pay for, and/or facilitate access to . . . services in violation of its sincerely held religious beliefs.”
In a lead editorial (”Catholics in Court,” May 23, 2012) The Wall Street Journal characterized the 12 federal lawsuits filed by 43 Catholic plaintiffs as “a big political and Constitutional moment.” And the Constitution is exactly what is at stake. The irony of the matter was cited by the WSJ editorial:
“The famously liberal Notre Dame gave President Obama an honorary degree in 2009 despite his support for abortion rights. At the time, Notre Dame President John Jenkins applauded Mr. Obama’s ‘willingness to engage with those who disagree with him and encourage people of faith to bring their beliefs to the public debate.’”
Well, it just wasn’t so, and it was never so. The lawsuit signifies, according to the Journal editorial, that “far from engaging, Mr. Obama has rebuffed Catholic leaders . . . ” And now, finally, Fr. Jenkins and Notre Dame have rebuffed the very presidential administration they honored and endorsed in 2009. In his lawsuit, Father Jenkins cited that “if the government wants to provide such services, means are available that do not compel religious organizations to act as its agents.” Father Weslin, take heart!
Wall Street Journal columnist William McGurn made this same point in “Cheer, Cheer for Old Notre Dame”, May 29, 2012): “Now Notre Dame is effectively suing its own commencement speaker” because this President’s dialogue with Catholicism is really a monologue. But of all the ironies in our Catholic alarm about the future of this presidency, it was Harvard Professor Mary Ann Glendon who provided the most clarity and a comprehensive analysis in a May 22 op-ed for The Wall Street Journal entitled “Why the Bishops Are Suing the U.S. Government.” Having served both the Bishops and the government as an ambassador and adviser, Professor Glendon described this development and its necessity in typically honorable and faithful fashion:
“The bishops fear religious liberty is becoming a second-class right . . . [T]hey hoped to persuade the government to bring its regulations in line with the First Amendment, and with federal laws such as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that provide exemptions to protect the conscience rights of religious institutions and individuals.”
“At the deepest level, we are witnessing an attack on the institutions of civil society that are essential to limited government and are important buffers between the citizen and the all-powerful state.”
EXPLOITING A DECADE OF SCANDAL
So why am I, an accused and imprisoned Catholic priest, writing of this? There is yet another irony. The stage for all that has transpired above has been set by a decade of Catholic scandal, a story in which I am very much a part. We are now commencing Act II of a drama set in motion in 2002, a drama the purpose of which is to eradicate a Catholic moral voice from the American public square. For a decade now, too many Catholics have passively let pundits with nefarious agendas have the loudest and last words in any public examination of the face of the Catholic Church.
Those who have claimed to be the voice of the faithful are among the most naive and blatant betrayers of faith while advocating for the very cause this government has set out to create: a one-size-fits-all version of American Catholicism with only ceremonial ties to Rome and clear allegiance to the path America is now on. Those who have claimed to advocate for victims – some real, but many feigned – have created a whole new set of victims by dismantling the freedoms and civil liberties of a single class of citizens: accused Catholic priests.
We’re left with a nagging question about how much our own need for moral housecleaning in the Church and priesthood has been contrived, incited, and exploited by the news media and by government entities for political ends thinly veiled by the mantra of “protecting children.” So I’ll repeat something important that I wrote of recently in “Accommodations in the Garden of Good and Evil.”
It is this: A number of Catholic writers have compared the Bishops’ recent protest to the 1937 encyclical, Mit Brennender Sorge (Of Burning Anxiety), written by Pope Pius XI and smuggled into Nazi Germany to be read at all Masses on Palm Sunday, 1937. It condemned the Nazi breeches of a concordat arrived at by the Nazi government with the Church four years earlier, only to be disregarded by the government that authored it and promised its integrity. Sound familiar?
I have written about this encyclical twice before. In “Catholic Scandal and the Third Reich” and “SNAP’s Last Gasp! The Pope’s Crimes Against Humanity,” I described in detail what happened in Nazi Germany when the Church asserted the inalienable right to religious liberty and the freedom of conscience over the demands of power. The result was a propaganda campaign masterminded and executed by Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda for the Third Reich.
Suddenly in 1937 Germany, based on a few real instances of suspected sexual abuse by clergy, hundreds of priests were rounded up, accused, imprisoned, and publicly condemned for the sole purpose of getting· the Catholic Church and its moral voice out of Hitler’s way. German Catholics didn’t see oppression so clearly when faced with it in 1937. We have no excuse for not seeing it now.
The Bishops, Notre Dame, and other Catholic institutions are now questioning their own “Accommodations in the Garden of Good and Evil,” and are now asking the courts to repel an unprecedented governmental assault on the rights of religious persons to practice the tenets of their faith without being forced to violate their moral convictions.
There is a lot at stake. Don’t let the news media’s exploitation of scandal sway you from the urgency of what this government is trying to sell you under the guise of health care. Perhaps it’s time to stand finally with the faithful voices courageously telling us the truth, such as that of Cardinal Timothy Dolan who told CBS’s “Face the Nation” on April 8:
“We didn’t ask for this fight, but we won’t back away from it.”
Catholic fidelity would go a long way toward removing the real millstone of Catholic scandal, the one depicted in stark contrast around the necks of Father Norman Weslin and President Barak Obama on the campus of the University of Notre Dame in that 2009 photo. Long after that other Catholic scandal is forgotten, this one will endure for generations to come.
Editor’s Note: Several of you have expressed a desire to join Fr. MacRae in a Spiritual Communion. He celebrates a private Mass in his prison cell on Sunday evenings between 11 pm and midnight. You’re invited to join in a Holy Hour during that time if you’re able.
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- Accommodations in the Garden of Good and Evil (14)
- Sitting in Your Own Pew: Religious Liberty and Literacy in America (4)
- Catholic Scandal and The Third Reich: The Rise and Fall of a Moral Panic (9)
- “SNAP’s Last Gasp!” The Pope’s “Crimes Against Humanity” (13)
- When Priests Are Falsely Accused Part 1: The Mirror of Justice Cracked (24)