Best of The Pietist Schoolman: Notre Dame and the Idea of the Catholic University

From April 9…

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!

One thought on “Best of The Pietist Schoolman: Notre Dame and the Idea of the Catholic University

  1. Oh, it’s very bad at Notre Dame, Dr. Gertz, very bad. You do not want a “Protestant Notre Dame,” for ir will no longer be Protestant.

    The University should not compromise its academic aspirations in its efforts to maintain its Catholic identity.

    University of Notre Dame
    Faculty Senate, April 9, 2008

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.