The Vatican and Notre Dame

VATICAN CITY — One of the biggest debates among U.S. Catholics at the moment is about Notre Dame University’s invitation to President Barack Obama to give this year’s commencement address and receive an honorary degree.

But so far, the issue has not had the same resonance at the Vatican — at least publicly. There’s been no Vatican statement, and the Vatican newspaper and Vatican Radio have yet to mention the controversy.

When Catholic News Service requested reaction from Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, head of the Congregation for Catholic Education (which, of course, deals with Catholic universities), we received a polite “no comment.”

Based on conversations with Roman Curia officials, I have no doubt that the Obama-Notre Dame question is on the minds of U.S. priests and bishops working at the Vatican. With statements pouring in on one side or another back home, how could it be otherwise?

But non-Americans at the Vatican tend to see the issue in a different light, I think.

For one thing, they seem more comfortable with the idea of accommodating dignitaries and civil authorities in a church setting, even when their political positions aren’t in line with the church’s teaching.

I emphasize that these were casual conversations, not a comprehensive survey of opinions. But two episodes in particular have been mentioned to me by Vatican officials over the last week.

One was that French President Nicholas Sarkozy received the title of honorary canon of the Basilica of St. John Lateran during his visit to Rome in 2007, a tradition that goes back centuries. Sarkozy, who also met Pope Benedict, supports legal abortion.


File photo of students at Rome's Sapienza University passing a sign protesting Pope Benedict's planned 2008 visit, a visit the pope then cancelled. (CNS photo/Reuters)

The Vatican and the Diocese of Rome seemed to have no problem with honoring the twice-divorced Sarkozy, who says he is a Catholic. In fact, the Lateran vespers service to bestow the title was “all pomp and circumstance,” as one Vatican official put it.

The second thing mentioned was that when Pope Benedict was invited to give a major talk at the Rome’s Sapienza University in 2008, the criticism and protest by some professors and students who didn’t want to give him a platform caused the pope to cancel the appearance. The episode was viewed at the Vatican as a prime example of intolerance.

Last year, a minor controversy erupted at Rome’s Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, known as the Angelicum, when Cherie Blair was invited to speak on “Women and Human Rights.” Some U.S. and British groups called her “pro-abortion” and tried to get the invitation rescinded; the university refused to cancel, despite receiving hundreds of complaints. During her talk, Blair said she had difficulties with the church’s teaching on responsible parenthood, but implied that her problems were with church teaching on contraception, not abortion.

Archbishop Nichols named archbishop of Westminster

VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI has named Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Birmingham, England, to be the new archbishop of Westminster. The 63-year-old archbishop was ordained to the priesthood in 1969. He served as general secretary of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales before being named an auxiliary bishop of Westminster in 1992. He was appointed archbishop of Birmingham in 2000.

He succeeds Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, 76, who has led the Westminster see for just over nine years.

The Diocese of Westminster covers London north of the Thames River.

UPDATE: Here’s a more complete version of this story.

Most-viewed CNS stories for March

Here’s our monthly list of most viewed stories on during March, in case you missed any of them:

1. Pope declares year of the priest to inspire spiritual perfection (March 16)

2. Bishops urge Catholics to reject bill giving laity parish fiscal rule (March 9)

3. Do not mock the pope, Italian cardinal and India’s bishops say (March 25)

4. Vatican stops Catholic-Anglican confirmation proposed for Australia (March 6)

5. Media effort draws 92,000 inactive Catholics back home to church (March 25)

6. Pope’s condom comments latest chapter in sensitive church discussion (March 18)

7. In letter, pope responds to criticisms over Lefebvrite decision (March 12)

8. North Dakota seminary partially evacuates because of flood alert (March 26)

9. Despite criticism, Notre Dame firm on Obama as commencement speaker (March 23)

10. Papal letter: Pointed, personal and from the heart (March 12)