Don’t Let Mike Pence Speak at Notre Dame

Mike Pence's official portrait for the 111th Congress, 2008 or 2009. Source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons License.
Mike Pence’s official portrait for the 111th Congress, 2008 or 2009. Source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons License.

First and foremost: I, the author of this piece, don’t actually care whether or not Mike Pence speaks at Notre Dame. That’s an institutional decision above my paygrade, and banning him would be a merely ideological exercise. My point here is discursive. Ideology and Catholicism have a long history in this country, if not the world over. Examining how faith relates to socio- political shibboleths seems enjoined upon us in 2017. Please do keep all that in mind as you read.

Vice President Mike Pence is slated to give the commencement address this year at Notre Dame. Typically, the president is asked to speak to the graduating students in the first year of his tenure. The practice seems to have begun with Eisenhower, though it only became consistent after Carter (Clinton seems to have been skipped). Forsaking President Trump was likely a strategic decision; the university didn’t want a repeat of the anger directed at former-president Obama’s commencement address and ex-VP Biden’s receiving the Laetare Medal. Pence, considered the saner and more religious of our executive top dogs, likely presented himself as a safer choice.

But is he? The furor over Obama and Biden mostly hinged on their support for abortion and same-sex marriage. The latter, a Catholic, had, in the eyes of many, practically excommunicated himself. All well and good enough: except, of course, that if such is your litmus test for a speaker, Mike Pence is an even worse candidate.

Why? Some students have said that his presence will make them feel “unsafe,” presumably because of his conservative views. But that conversation falls too easily into existing tropes: snowflakes, campus warriors, brave Republicans, “faith is not bigotry,” etc. No, the fairly simple reason why Mike Pence is less qualified to speak at a Catholic institution is that he, to use a word not much bandied about these days, is, a schismatic, or, depending on how you cut it, a heretic or apostate.

The Catechism of the Roman Church defines these terms thus:

Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.

Mike Pence, of course, was born Catholic, and, though he has previously identified as an “evangelical Catholic,” he seems to have moved on to an evangelical megachurch by the 90s (and now, as far as I can tell, refuses to say where he and his family go). His language, when speaking about his conversion, sounds quite Reformed-evangelical to me:

One of the more publicly shared accounts of Pence’s transition from a Catholic youth minister who wanted to be a priest to an evangelical megachurch member came in 1994. That’s when he told the Indianapolis Business Journal about an intense period of religious searching that he underwent in college. “I made a commitment to Christ,” Pence said, speaking of the late 1970s. “I’m a born-again, evangelical Catholic.” […]

In a 2013 profile of Pence, Fehrman said the then-new governor rebuffed repeated attempts to talk more about how he shifted faith identities. The son and grandson of Baptist clergy, Fehrman was fascinated by the switch of a politician who grew up in a family of Irish Catholic Democrats and asked for more detail.

“All he’d say was ‘I cherish my Catholic upbringing,’ ” Ferhman said. The profile, in the Indianapolis Monthly, quotes Pence as saying “I’m a pretty ordinary Christian.” Pence declined to say where he and his family went to church, saying only, “We’re kind of looking.” […]

The only clear chronology Ferhman said he sees is that many Pence friends describe the mid-1990s as a “time of maturing” for the governor. In the 1994 piece, Pence calls himself Catholic, and then by 1995, the Indianapolis Star was reporting that Pence was attending an evangelical megachurch.

Admittedly, the break seems to have been hard on Mr. Pence. Religious conversions typically are. But even as he has attempted to balance these identities, his family has expressed feelings of betrayal:

Mr. Pence, 57, who accepted the Republican nomination for vice president on Wednesday night, is the only one of six Pence siblings who is no longer part of the Catholic Church. Though the family remains close, his embrace of evangelical Christianity was long a source of disappointment to his mother, according to the Rev. Clement T. Davis, the priest at the church in Columbus, Ind., where Mr. Pence was baptized.

The family’s Irish Catholic roots run deep. Mr. Pence’s maternal grandfather, with whom he was especially close, came to America in 1923 from Ireland and settled in Chicago, where he eventually became a bus driver.

“Our life revolved around the church,” Gregory Pence, one of Mr. Pence’s two older brothers, said in an interview, adding that he still went to morning Mass there a few times a week with his mother.

But at Hanover College, a small liberal-arts college in Indiana near the banks of the Ohio River, Mr. Pence came to feel that something was missing from his spiritual life. The Catholicism of his youth, with its formality and rituals, had not given him the intimacy with God that he now found himself craving.

“I began to meet young men and women who talked about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” he said years later in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network. “That had not been a part of my experience.” […]

By the mid-1990s, Mr. Pence and his wife were attending an evangelical church in Indianapolis. Years later, the break from Catholicism still stung his mother, Nancy, according to Father Davis, who has been the priest at her church, now called St. Bartholomew, since 1997 and has grown close to her.

“You could see Nancy just shake her head about it,” Father Davis said inside the rectory before Mass on Saturday. “She was disappointed. She had hoped he could find his way back to the church.”

On a personal level, I am not one for calling Protestants “heretics.” I don’t think in our contemporary liberal, capitalist age the term accomplishes a whole lot—separated brethren, even “beloved schismatic brother and sisters” seem better. At minimum, however, it seems that Vice President Pence has left the Catholic Church. Is that not worse, as an example from the Catholic perspective, than the misled Joe Biden or the never-Catholic Obama? Each of them may have ideological disagreements with the Church, but one professes himself a (likely-troubled) believer, and the other acknowledges that his Protestantism sets different faith parameters than those of Catholics.

In other words, if Catholics were upset about these other two speakers, it seems obvious to me that they ought to offer some protest in the face of this Pence invitation (this is, of course, leaving out his, admittedly somewhat old comments on either gay conversion therapy or contraception, both of which the Church rejects, among other things). As a man who has quite literally left the Catholic Church, it’s hard to imagine showcasing a worse example for the faithful. It’s not just that his theology is wrong by our standards; it’s that he actually left the fold, willingly separated himself from an apostolic Church.

For my part, as stated above, I genuinely do not care which politician or theologian or whatever Notre Dame gets to speak (they even had the President of El Salvador in the 80s. Exactly, one of the ones with the Right-wing death squads). It seems to me what this mess—caring so much about Pence and the others—really foregrounds is just how often ideological concerns overtake the beautiful work of faith: love, joy, humbleness. But, eh, who has time for all that when there are wars to be fought online, points to be gained in an unending war on someone else somewhere else?

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