Georgetown: Caesar > Jesus?

If you follow Catholic (or even political) news, you’ve probably already heard about the recent scandal at Notre Dame University. ND has a generally proud Catholic tradition, (although there have been a few notable missteps), and has suffered greatly for the actions of her president, Fr. John Jenkins. Fr. Jenkins decided that the appropriate way to deal with the president with the most pro-choice record in American history would be to give him the spot of Notre Dame commencement speaker, and an honorary law degree. Talk about speaking truth to power!

There’s been a lot of outcry over this. In what Mark Shea has termed the “miraculous multiplication of the episcopal spines,” a surprising number of US Bishops were finally so terrified of the Obama pro-choice and anti-Catholic agenda that they spoke up. This “Bishops acting Catholic” moment could not go unpunished, of course. Doug Kmiec, nominal pro-lifer turned Obama apologist, found “it hard to reconcile this approach [in this case, Cardinal Francis George boycotting the graduation] with the image of Christ in Matthew’s Gospel never turning away even “sinners and tax collectors.” (The shock of it! A bishop engaging in a non-violent protest to take a stand for the sanctity of life! How un-Christian… this time!)

The major argument which Kmiec and others use is that the Catholic bishops are quashing open dialogue with those they disagree with. Those on the bishops’ side say the real issue is the bestowal of an honorary law degree. They’re not just letting him speak – they’re honoring him for his work in the law (work which has done more to dismantle the rights of the unborn than… you know, the work of virtually all those people in the law who they’re not honoring). It’s this part – the honorary law degree – which runs afoul of a 2004 Bishops’ statement called “Catholics in Political Life,” which warns that:

“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.” (emphasis in original)

So to say the least, it’s a somewhat terse time for a Catholic university to be inviting President Obama to speak. This didn’t deter Georgetown in the least: we hosted Obama on Tuesday (an event which I was unable to attend). A confused religion blogger asked in a post entitled “Obama+Notre Dame= Loud controversy!; Obama+Georgetown=Crickets chirping in silence” why there was no outcry. The reason, in short, is that Kmiec and others were wrong (or intentionally misleading their readers). The bishops weren’t taking a stance against free speech – they were taking a stance against honoring those who make a career of doing dishonorable things regarding those too defenseless to fend for themselves.

It also didn’t deter the White House in the least. You might think that if your administration had already: (a) tried to hire the former legal director of NARAL, Dawn Johnsen, who sued to remove the Catholic Church’s tax-exempt status for Her opposition to abortion (United States Catholic Conference v. Abortion Rights Mobilization)… for the very position that Bush was protested for politicizing; (b) failed to include (or even invite?) any Catholic clergy in the inauguration; and (c) passed a slew of pro-choice legislation over the vocal opposition of the Church, including “funding overseas abortion providers, removing restrictions from federally funded medical experimentation on human embryos, revisiting conscience protections for pro-life health-care professionals,” you might tread more carefully. Indeed, between the vocal Notre Dame outcry and the fact that polls show that among Catholics, the percentage disapproving of your administration has at least doubled in a month, you might think you had a potential “Catholic problem.”

You would think wrong. The White House asked Georgetown to cover up the name of Jesus prominently displayed.* Of course, Georgetown stood its ground, declaring, “No! Don’t you know that we believe that ‘Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved’ (Romans 10:13, Acts 2:21)? This event is a great opportunity to evangelize that faith which is the core and heart out our academic purpose, our very existence!”

Oh wait. I’m confusing Georgetown with a Catholic university.
It’s hard to even know where to be most aghast. That the White House had the audacity to even ask a Catholic school to cover up religious symbols to cloak Obama in flags, that the University complied, or that Georgetown’s Fr. Reese thought it was no big deal, or that they even bothered to uncloak the IHS afterwards.

The nominal explanation is that it would be distracting to have Obama trying to compete with (against?) Jesus. Right. Tell that to students who saw Laura Bush in 2006, where the IHS was prominently displayed, as ever. A more believable (or at least more hilarious) explanation can be found at Southern Appeal, who decided it was because “There’s Only Room for One Messiah.”

The Obama administration has already thrown the guantlet down in a way that many Catholics never expected when they voted. The “pro-life, pro-Obama” crowd was prepared to suffer some setbacks on the abortion issue (hey, it’s not their lives!), but the fervor with which the administration has set out on this shameful mission is shocking to all but the most jaded. In the growing battle between the interests of Caesar and Christ, Georgetown has cast its lot.

*Or more precisely, asked them to cover up the “IHS,” which is a monogram for Iesus Hominum Salvator (”Jesus, Savior of men” in Latin). (Or if you prefer Jack Chick’s version of history, it stands for “Isis, Horus, Seb,” some Egyptian gods we decided to coopt?)
(Ed.: Turns out, this footnote is wrong. See comments for details!)


  1. A well written post, but a quick correction on your footnote. Per the Catholic Encyclopedia:

    “A monogram of the name of Jesus Christ. From the third century the names of our Saviour are sometimes shortened, particularly in Christian inscriptions (IH and XP, for Jesus and Christus). In the next century the “sigla” (chi-rho) occurs not only as an abbreviation but also as a symbol. From the beginning, however, in Christian inscriptions the nomina sacra, or names of Jesus Christ, were shortened by contraction, thus IC and XC or IHS and XPS for Iesous Christos….IHS was sometimes wrongly understood as “Jesus Hominum (or Hierosolymae) Salvator”, i.e. Jesus, the Saviour of men (or of Jerusalem=Hierosolyma).”

  2. I always thought that “IHS” stood for “In Hoc Signo” or “In this Sign” referring to the appearance of the sign “in Hoc Signo ,Vinces” or “In this sign (i.e. the cross of Jesus) you shall conquer” to the Emperor Constantine at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in AD 312, which lead to his subsequent conversion to Christianity and the emancipation of the Church within Roman Empire.

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