Sunday Morning Quarterbacks

Can the bishops save Notre Dame football?

Chicago, Dec. 3 — The Administrative Committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) will convene an emergency meeting here today to discuss the University of Notre Dame’s decision to retain its embattled head football coach, Charlie Weis.

The bishops are, by all accounts, divided internally on how to proceed. Some bishops believe that aggressive steps are needed to shake up the complacency that has settled in at South Bend. They fear that, unless decisive and courageous action is taken, Notre Dame’s program will soon be indistinguishable from the rest of the college football landscape. Francis Cardinal George, USCCB president and archbishop of Chicago, said, “Three quarters just to get one first down against USC? Notre Dame football is in danger of becoming an exhausted project. It’s not a matter of whether we are ‘Holtz’ fans or ‘Parseghian’ fans or, heaven forbid, ‘Weis’ fans, but rather that we are simply Notre Dame fans united in our one father, Knute Rockne, in his only begotten son, George Gipp, and in the four evangelists—I mean, the Four Horsemen. I am disappointed that Notre Dame did not take the actions needed to restore its football program to fidelity and, therefore, greatness.” Cardinal George later clarified these remarks, stating that he was speaking only in his own name, and not as USCCB president.

The Most Rev. Gerald F. Kicanas, USCCB vice president and bishop of Tucson, said, “We bishops share a common vision but differ on the best means to realize that vision. We are unanimous in our conviction that something must be done. But, at this moment of great importance for the Church and the nation, we must not reduce the situation at ND to the single issue of Charlie Weis. Instead, we offer all Notre Dame football fans a moral framework with which they can properly form their consciences on this delicate issue. We are not telling anyone whom to fire or not to fire.”

Kicanas’s remarks resonated with those who counsel a more nuanced, consistent ethic of football, sometimes known as the “four-seamed pigskin” approach. Firing Weis, these prelates argue, would not have addressed the root causes of Notre Dame’s now decades-long mediocrity in football. “How can we support the Notre Dame administration so that they aren’t trapped in a downward spiral of hiring and firing?” asked one bishop, who asked to remain anonymous. “How can we foster a culture of football in which such firings are both unthinkable and unnecessary?”

Reaction to the bishops’ surprise meeting was immediate and varied. The Rev. John I. Jenkins, CSC, president of Notre Dame, issued a statement: “The Notre Dame community always welcomes the valuable insights of the American bishops, and we look forward to continuing our conversation. I have always believed that dialogues are better than monologues.”

The Rev. Richard P. McBrien, professor of theology at Notre Dame, said, “Firing Weis would certainly have been a legitimate option. Having written several books on the papacy, I’d be a supporter of a contemporary Pope Urban, if you know what I mean. But the bishops shouldn’t intrude in an internal university matter. We must have the athletic freedom and institutional autonomy proper to any university sports program, Catholic or not.”

George Weigel, Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Washington, DC-based Ethics and Public Policy Center and a close personal friend of the late Pope John Paul II, said, “I’m a Baltimore Orioles fan, so I don’t have a dog in this fight. But the time has come for Churchillian action. The bishops as a body have to decide if they want to be the shepherds and leaders God has called them to be, or if they will settle for being bureaucratic discussion-group moderators. And Notre Dame has unfortunately decided to forgo excellence on the gridiron and settle for ‘Notre Dame Lite,” when it is clear that the mindless ‘Lite’ approach has led to declining win-loss records and television ratings.”

Other commentators counseled caution. The Rev. Thomas Reese, SJ, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center and former editor of America magazine, said, “Notre Dame administrators made up their own minds, and heavy-handed pressure tactics by the bishops will surely backfire. The best-educated Catholics in the history of the world just tune this stuff out.”

M. Cathleen Kaveny, professor of law and theology at Notre Dame, warned that the bishops needed to choose their tactics and words carefully: “Prophetic denunciations are satisfying in the short term, but they convince very few people and almost always fall flat in the end. We need a more pragmatic approach that respects the difficult, messy choices we all have to make. I think we need to ask ourselves, ‘What would Stephen Colbert do?’”

Coach Weis and Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick are scheduled to meet on Monday, December 8 for a comprehensive discussion of the football program. The coming days will surely bring further resolution to a controversial matter, but whether that resolution will satisfy anyone is another matter altogether. Kenneth L. Woodward, Newsweek contributing editor and a Notre Dame alumnus (class of ’57), summed up the feelings of many fans and bishops alike: “It all went downhill after Frank O’Malley died.”

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Christopher Ruddy received a doctorate in theology from Notre Dame in 2001. He is an associate professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.

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Christopher Ruddy is associate professor of systematic theology at the Catholic University of America.