Notre Dame and the Idea of the Catholic University

Having spent a couple of posts last week unpacking Liberty University’s ambition (and the older one of Baylor University) to become “the Protestant Notre Dame” — and asking just what that meant, I’m surprised it took almost four days to see this comment appear:

The question isn’t so much whether Liberty is a Protestant Notre Dame, it’s whether Notre Dame is still a Catholic one!

(I’m perversely tickled that the author of the comment was Tom Van Dyke, the self-admitted gadfly who has become something of a fixture over on John Fea’s blog. Here’s John’s report on having finally met Van Dyke last fall.)

I’m not enough of a historian of Catholicism to be able to unpack this response in any great depth, but here’s some background.

The "Word of Life" mural on Hesburgh Library at Notre Dame
The “Word of Life” mural on Notre Dame’s Hesburgh Library – Creative Commons (Michael Fernandes)

First, Van Dyke linked to a four-year old story in the conservative National Catholic Register (not to be confused with the National Catholic Reporter — more from them in the second half of this post) that featured comments from longtime ND historian Wilson Miscamble (whose book on George Kennan was on my orals reading list in grad school). While he was still upset at Barack Obama being invited to speak on campus in 2009 (“Notre Dame’s honoring of a president who is deeply committed to the terrible abortion regime which prevails in the United States today damaged its reputation and credibility as a Catholic university”), Miscamble’s diagnosis of “What’s wrong with Notre Dame?” went deeper than debates over social and political issues:

Let me approach this question by saying that Notre Dame is a place that is not clear about its mission and identity. There is a debate here as to whether it will be a Catholic university at its heart or just in a peripheral way. That Notre Dame is not sure what foundational document will guide its present and future is the source of many of our problems.

Portrait of John Henry Newman
This post is already over 1500 words, so I won’t even begin to attempt to fold Cardinal Newman into the discussion – Wikimedia

Miscamble bemoaned that university leaders like board of trustees chair Richard Notebaert (since reelected to that position) embraced the Land O’Lakes Statement, a 1967 document on “The Idea of a Catholic University” drawn up by a group headed by legendary Notre Dame president Rev. Theodore Hesburgh (who passed away six weeks ago). It asserted that the modern Catholic university must “be a university in the full modern sense of the word, with a strong commitment to and concern for academic excellence,” which required the university to maintain “a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.” Indeed, the Catholic university for Hesburgh et al. had to serve as “the critical reflective intelligence” of both society and Church.

Fearing that to build further on such a foundation would only “[push] us further down the road to the marginalization of religion and, ultimately, to secularization,” Miscamble instead called on Notre Dame to make foundational Pope John Paul II’s 1990 apostolic constitution on Catholic universities, Ex Corde EcclesiaeWhile John Paul insisted that “It is the honour and responsibility of a Catholic University to consecrate itself without reserve to the cause of truth” and that its work “enables the Church to institute an incomparably fertile dialogue with people of every culture,” he understood the Catholic university to be “born from the heart of the church.” He insisted that any university called Catholic had to be “linked with the Church either by a formal, constitutive and statutory bond or by reason of an institutional commitment made by those responsible for it,” with “Catholic teaching and discipline… to influence all university activities….”

Miscamble viewed Ex Corde Ecclesia as safeguarding the explicitly Catholic and Christian character of the school, instead of “[settling] for a Catholic ‘gloss’ on or around Notre Dame….” And National Catholic Register had a year earlier celebrated the document’s 20th anniversary as “[calling] for the sort of unabashed fidelity that stands in stark contrast to the prevailing blandness and creeping secularization throughout much of Catholic higher education.” Leaving elite universities like Notre Dame and the Jesuit universities conspicuously unnamed, it instead celebrated schools like Christendom College (“which says that Catholicism ‘is the air that we breathe'”), Franciscan University of Steubenville (tagline: “Academically Excellent. Passionately Catholic“), and other Catholic colleges “with heart.”

Caldwell Hall at Catholic University of America
Also endorsed by conservatives as having “heart”: Catholic University of America – Creative Commons (Farragutful)

The latest iteration of the debate over what it means for Notre Dame to be a “Catholic university” stems from a seemingly banal source: a curriculum review. Yet unlike the Obama invitation debate, commented Michael Sean Winters at the beginning of a three-part National Catholic Reporter series on the review, “this controversy is actually important.”

Drawing the greatest attention is a proposed revision to the curriculum’s required courses in theology and philosophy. Winters defends the centrality of both fields (“Without theology and philosophy, it is not merely the ‘Catholic’ identity of a Catholic university that is placed into question, but the ‘university’ identity of a Catholic university”) while also questioning how theology is taught at such schools. Winter’s series is well worth the time it takes to read, all the more so since he wrestles with the benefit of putting “Catholic identity in a plural form” while acknowledging that “Still, ours is a dogmatic faith….

A god who made no claims, authoritative claims, about how we live our lives, their origin and destiny, is not much of a god. Such a god bears little resemblance to the Christian God. Our God does make such claims, and it is the task of Catholic higher education to examine those claims, how they apply, how they develop, how they cohere one with another, and so, how they fill a distinctive role in a curriculum of study.

But for the rest of this post, we’ll lean on Sarah Pulliam Bailey’s more concise report in the February 17 Washington Post:

McGreevy, Catholicism and American Freedom
The curriculum review committee is co-chaired by historian John McGreevy

Many Catholics view the South Bend, Ind. school as the central intellectual institution for American Catholicism — it is widely considered one of the nation’s elite universities — and Notre Dame’s ultimate decision could have ripple effects for the nation’s Catholic schools. One of the many questions is whether required courses exploring Catholicism must come out of the theology or philosophy departments. Notre Dame students are now required to take two theology courses and two philosophy courses in order to graduate….

Some professors worry that requiring students to take a class from the Catholic intellectual tradition instead of from the theology department — such as a course on Catholic painters in the Renaissance period or a course on Dante in literature — could push them away from the theology and philosophy that are core to the university’s curriculum.

Traditionalists agree with one theology professor’s argument that his discipline “provides a link with the Church because theology is about a living faith grounded in the past and oriented towards the future.” Reformers contend that other disciplines — including art and literature — could also serve as “carriers of vision.”

(Incidentally, here’s how the two foundational documents cited above handle the issue. Land O’Lakes: “There must be no theological or philosophical imperialism… However, there will necessarily result from the interdisciplinary discussions an awareness that there is a philosophical and theological dimension to most intellectual subjects when they are pursued far enough.” Ex Corde Ecclesia: “Aided by the specific contributions of philosophy and theology, university scholars will be engaged in a constant effort to determine the relative place and meaning of each of the various disciplines within the context of a vision of the human person and the world that is enlightened by the Gospel, and therefore by a faith in Christ, the Logos, as the centre of creation and of human history.” It also assumed that interdisciplinary studies would be “assisted by a careful and thorough study of philosophy and theology….” Christendom College, which touts its fidelity to John Paul’s vision, requires its students to take six courses each in philosophy and theology.

While John Paul enthused that “Catholic theology, taught in a manner faithful to Scripture, Tradition, and the Church’s Magisterium, provides an awareness of the Gospel principles which will enrich the meaning of human life and give it a new dignity,” Hesburgh had said in 1968 that “Theology must be free, for it will be accepted as a true university discipline only if operates under the same kind of freedom and autonomy as do other disciplines.”)

John McGreevy, the historian/dean co-chairing Notre Dame’s curriculum review committee, signaled that the larger identity and mission of the school were not in danger: “How do we instantiate the Catholic identity in the core curriculum? One mode is two theology and two philosophy, but there are other modes, too…. Maybe we need more theology and philosophy. We care very deeply about the Catholic identity. Maybe we need more theology, maybe we need less, who’s to say how it turns out?”

Notre Dame's basilica, Golden Dome, and Washington Hall
Notre Dame’s basilica, Golden Dome, and Washington Hall – Creative Commons (Michael Fernandes)

All this just underscores another reason why both Baylor and (certainly) Liberty fall far short of the “Protestant Notre Dame” title. I can’t imagine a curriculum review at either generating a fraction of the interest being paid to the theology/philosophy debate at ND; what those schools require of their students simply doesn’t mean that much beyond their constituencies. And for all the brilliance of the scholars being drawn to Baylor (and perhaps Liberty), none of their leaders has had anything like the intellectual authority of a Hesburgh — let alone a John Paul.

Closing thesis: To the extent that a movement as diverse and internally divided as American Protestantism can have a “central intellectual institution,” it’s much more likely to be a smaller college or seminary than a large university. Argue away!

12 thoughts on “Notre Dame and the Idea of the Catholic University

  1. Outstanding post. I really enjoyed this particular post. In fact, I am savoring it. It is a well written and well stated piece of scholarship triumphing that of an opinion with a link to another opinion.

  2. I think you are correct in your claims, but only if you are talking about non- or post-confessional Evangelical/Fundamentalist schools. In that context their colleges all started rather late as seminaries, teacher and missionary training schools, or “bible colleges.” The born-again evangelical tends top be a presentist if not a futurist. History is bunk or simply non-existent until you’ve been around long enough. But if you look at the history of certain older Reformed and Lutheran institutions I think you would find struggles similar to the Catholic institutions. Humanistic anxieties over moral and quasi-religious mission and identity briefly arose in the Ivies themselves during the 1940s. (Your post on the history of western civ. classes touches on this, as I recall.) Probably any institution with a deep sense of the past it is obliged not to forget will wrestle with the problem of how much theology, philosophy, history, literature, etc. must be required although this may be the wrong question for them to ask.

    1. You do know it had been performed at ND for years until a “traditionalist reaction group” [you say that like it’s a bad thing] finally spoke up?

      You do know that there’s the lesbian seduction of a teenage minor in the show? You don’t seem to be the sort of fellow who’s easily shocked, so with M. Gertz’s permission, let’s not be coy:

      Afterwards the gorgeous lady teaches me everything about my Coochi Snorcher [vagina]. She makes me play with myself in front of her and she teaches me all the different ways to give myself pleasure. She’s very thorough. She tells me to always know how to give myself pleasure so I’ll never need to rely on a man. In the morning I am worried that I’ve become a butch because I’m so in love with her. She laughs, but I never see her again. I realize later she was my surprising, unexpected and politically incorrect salvation. She transformed my sorry-ass Coochi Snorcher and raised it into a kind of heaven.

      Child molestation, in other words, becomes a liberating experience for the child.

      At one point, the script read:

      Now people say it was a kind of rape . . . Well, I say if it was rape, it was a good rape then, a rape that turned my sorry-ass coochi snorcher into a kind of heaven.

      Your call.

      1. Yes, and your point is…? It’s in the ballpark of something like Last Tango in Paris, which is actually more troubling, and come to think of that, we watched Tango at MU in a graduate seminar on trauma, grief, and the poetry of mourning. Nobody thought it was remarkable, but I guess that because McAdams didn’t hear about it.

      2. You really don’t see my point? Really, Dan? You seem a smart fellow.

        It’s one thing to study evil, it’s another to celebrate it. By any Catholic definition, what’s described above is evil, and to perform it without comment or condemnation is actually a co-operation with that evil.

        Now if a Catholic college wants to teach The Vagina Monologues in that context

        wonderful. But even then, they don’t need to stage it.

      3. So you know what plays intend to celebrate the vices portrayed in them, but this intent can be ethically mitigated by some type of critical commentary that doesn’t intend celebration? This sounds like a very easily subverted “Evil.” TVM seems like an embarrassingly bad play, and if people just disregarded and mocked it instead of reaction to it then it wouldn’t have the status it does. Like I suggested, it’s become a mechanism for tweaking traditionalists.

      4. Like I suggested, it’s become a mechanism for tweaking traditionalists.

        I’d rather work backwards from that truth. 😉 Now we’re getting somewhere.

        It took the “traditionalists” [I do not stipulate the term except in contradistinction to “perverts”] years to object to what was becoming a “traditional” performance of The Vagina Monologues

        We may study evil, but we should not make a tradition of it, Dan. For some reason, sophomore cultural transgessivists think they can tweak or offend “traditionalists,” as though The Vagina Monologues is shocking rather than hopelessly banal.

        Now what would be cool is to turn The Vagina Monologues into a sort of Rocky Horror Picture Show where the audience gets to yell hilarious bon mots back at the moronic script.

        You game, D? Love from your fellow transgressor. Now THAT would take the cake.


      5. If the show’s producer says she doesn’t want or like the scandal reactions because she sees the play as a “productive” discussion-enabler “about women’s sexuality,” then maybe that’s true. Maybe the people who keep putting it on do so not to “celebrate” particular things, like the scene you referenced and other parts based on the playwright’s childhood victimization. Maybe they feel there is a need to push back on an absence of discussion in a world where there is a great deal of abuse and dysfunction surrounding sex that impacts women (and men) at an early age. Maybe the play is capable of positive receptions: The fact that this self-consciously crafted mess of confessional autobiography has had enough of a consistently positive reception to keep it going ought to make everyone ask why their culture has not produced something better that confronts the same difficult issues in a transformative way.

      6. Perhaps, but I believe you’ve proved my point. Fortunately, there is some pushback to keep Notre Dame Catholic, but as we see, this staging of this piece of filth went on for years before anyone even bothered to protest.

        What is relevant here is the teaching of the Catholic Church, esp the local bishop, who has whatever ecclesiatical oversight Notre Dame is subject to [as we see, not much: it’s not an organ of the Church].

        Clearly the late Bishop D’Arcy had to twist some arms on what should be obvious:

        This play violates the truth about women; the truth about sexuality; the truth about male and female, and the truth about the human body.

        It is in opposition to the highest understanding of academic freedom. A Catholic university seeks truth. It is never afraid of truth, but it seeks it with respect for both reason and faith. Each gives light and guidance to the other. How has the light coming from faith, or indeed from right reason, been brought to bear on this decision?

        Also, what possible advantage can this text have to the common good of society or of the church? I have dialogued on this matter with Father Edward Malloy, CSC, most recently in an exchange of letters initiated by me this past summer, in which I shared with him my pastoral concern. Such quiet dialogues on difficult matters have always been my modus operandi with Notre Dame and the other Catholic institutions of higher learning in our diocese, especially on difficult issues. This is in the spirit of Ex Corde Ecclesiae which calls for a spirit of friendship between bishops and university leadership through close personal and pastoral relationships characterized by mutual trust, close and constant cooperation and continuing dialogues. But a bishop has an obligation to teach, and there comes a time when the young people at Notre Dame, many of whom, along with their parents, have written to me over the years about this text, need to know the judgment of the bishop on a moral question at a time when clarity about the teaching of the church is required. A bishop can never refuse to exercise this responsibility so central to his vocation.

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