Wednesday, April 16, 2008

God and Man at Notre Dame

More on the Pope, but this time from a Domer, Newsweek religion editor Ken Woodward '57:

POPE BENEDICT XVI will give several speeches during his visit to the United States, but the most consequential for American Catholics may be his address to the presidents of Catholic colleges and universities tomorrow.

Benedict has shown himself concerned about preserving the specifically Roman Catholic identity of all Catholic institutions, particularly those in higher education. His predecessor, John Paul II, tried to do this by insisting that Catholic theology professors sign a document called a mandatum affirming their fidelity to the papal teaching. Conservative Catholics are counting on Benedict to enforce this approach.

Yet, because Benedict is at heart a professor, I hope that he recognizes that fidelity to church teachings cannot be coerced.

No question, a Catholic university should be identifiably Catholic. But the problem of institutional identity goes far beyond litmus tests for theologians.

Arguments over the “identity crisis” on Catholic campuses have been going on for 50 years — long enough to realize that there is no single thing that makes a Catholic university Catholic. Indeed, the question of Catholic identity has as much to do with the changes in Catholic students and their parents as it does with faculty members and administrations.

In the early 1960s, half of all Catholic children attended Catholic grade and high schools. The 10 percent or so who went on to college had some 300 Catholic colleges and universities to choose from — more, in fact, than in the rest of the world combined. Catholics were expected to attend one of these; those who wanted to attend, say, an Ivy League college often had to get permission from their pastor.

Today few Catholic students or parents are likely to choose a Catholic university if Princeton or Stanford is an option. A Catholic higher education, in other words, is less prized by many Catholic parents — including complaining conservatives — than the name on the college diploma.

Another difference is this: Well into the 1960s, Catholic college freshmen arrived with a knowledge of the basics of their religion — enough, at least, to question the answers they were given as children or, among the brighter students, to be challenged in theology classes toward a more mature grasp of their faith.

Most of today’s Catholic students, however, have no such grounding. Even the graduates of Catholic high schools, theology professors complain, have to be taught the fundamentals. As one Methodist theologian at Notre Dame wryly put it, “Before I teach my course on marriage I have to tell them first what their own church has to say on the subject.”

No question, Catholic colleges were more “Catholic” then than they are today. Most were small campuses with a liberal-arts curriculum, making it easy to weave theology into the classroom mix. Most teachers were Catholic and many were priests and nuns.

The ’60s changed all that. In 1966, the American Council on Education issued a study that failed to uncover a single Catholic university with a “distinguished or even strong” graduate department. This prompted Msgr. John Tracy Ellis, a leading American Catholic historian, to suggest a radical consolidation: American Catholics should support no more than three Catholic universities, one on each coast and one in between.

Ellis knew it would never happen, given the independence of each university. Yet his pronouncement prompted a contest among Catholic universities in the hope of surviving the final cut. The rush was on to upgrade faculty and facilities, which meant competing for the best teachers and students regardless of religion. Then there was the Second Vatican Council’s urging Catholics to embrace the modern world. This prompted many priests and nuns to abandon Catholic institutions to work “in the world,” further accelerating the need for lay faculty members. Faculty strikes over academic freedom at Catholic universities led many to turn control over to lay-dominated boards of trustees.

Led by the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, the longtime president of Notre Dame, Catholic educators redefined the relationship between church and university. As Father Hesburgh adroitly put it, a Catholic university is the place “where the church does its thinking.” Learning, in other words, is not indoctrination.

Since those transformative years, the number of Catholic colleges and universities has declined by a third. Some secularized, cutting all ties to the church, in order to survive. Others, especially those for women, closed their doors for lack of applicants. Many more grew through compromise: though nominally Catholic, they offered theology as not much more than a series of selections in a menu of course options.

America can still boast of a monopoly of the world’s best Catholic educational institutions. Some are small liberal-arts colleges that have preserved or reinvented classical Catholic humanism. Others are more sectarian, fashioned in reaction to the demand for orthodoxy by John Paul II. A few universities like Notre Dame (my alma mater) have attained elite status while remaining manifestly Catholic.

I hope Pope Benedict will keep this diversity in mind when tomorrow he discusses the issue of institutional identity. I hope, too, that someone in his entourage will point out that there are more Catholic students at many of the big public universities in the Midwest than at any Catholic college. They are there by choice, their own or that of their parents.

What these students and their teachers need is a vision of what it means to be an educated Catholic, not just a lecture on preserving Catholic institutional identity. If Benedict can manage that, his words will be worth remembering.


Bill Dempsey said...

There is a curious disconnect between the title and the text of Kenneth Woodward’s essay “God and Man at Notre Dame.” While ranging broadly over the landscape of Catholic higher education, he mentions Notre Dame only in passing: “A few universities like Notre Dame (my alma mater) have attained elite status while remaining manifestly Catholic.”

Reader, beware. If “manifestly” is read as “apparently,” Mr. Woodward is correct. The chapels are crowded, the Basilica is breathtakingly beautiful, the liturgies are moving, and there is an icon on every corner.

But if “manifestly” is read as “plainly,” Mr. Woodward is wrong. The reasons are described in detail on the website of Project Sycamore,

What matters most at a university is who teaches and what they teach. In its drive to achieve the elite status noted by Mr. Woodward, Notre Dame has followed a faculty hiring policy that has resulted in a reduction of Catholic representation from 85% in the 19070’s to 52% today. Without radical change, Catholics will soon be a shrinking minority. More, today only three hours of specifically Catholic theology are required over four years. And this for students who, Mr. Woodward says, typically come ill-informed.

This means Notre Dame can no longer credibly maintain its historic claim to Catholic identity. Its own Mission Statement tells us so. That Statement declares that the University’s Catholic identity “depends upon” there being a “predominant number of Catholic intellectuals” on the faculty. All agree this means a solid majority of committed Catholics. Dissident and nominal Catholics don’t count. With a mere 52% of “check-the-box” Catholics, Notre Dame falls well short.

Notre Dame remains, most agree, the most Catholic as well as the best of the major Catholic universities. With decisive leadership, it can once again become, in the school’s favored phrase cited by Mr. Woodward, the “place where the Church does its thinking.” But the recent decision of 50 bishops to move their conference away from Notre Dame because its President would not cancel this year’s student on-campus performance of The Vagina Monologues suggests that the Church is thinking somewhere else these days.

Tom said...

Dear Mr. Dempsey,

I agree with the substance of your argument, but, with all due
respect, must state from experience that Notre Dame is a place of
tremendous faith, even if it is quantitatively falling short on its
Catholic hiring.

I will say that Notre Dame has remained "manifestly" Catholic as
'substantially' so. That is, the Eucharist still lies at the heart of
Our Lady's University. It is tempting to look at the decay in our
faculty composition and despair that they will soon override our
Sacramental life as well. But then, which is really more powerful: the
philosopher who teaches that their is no truth or the Truth, who is
placed reverently (I hope) into the mouths of thousands of individuals
at Notre Dame every week?

The temptation is, always, to despair of our future, but, in faith, I
hope that the love of Christ will transform this University's faculty
as it continues to transform those who participate in the rich
sacramental tradition offered here.

We must always remember that faith and reason are intimatily linked
and that faith, as a virtue and, thus, of God, holds the higher hand
when and wherever it flourishes.

As an example, I spoke to Prof. Ralph McInerney earlier this week, who
noted that the transformation in the general composition of the
theology faculty over the last decade is nothing short of a miracle.
And this from a man who has strong concerns about the direction in
which this University is headed.

That said, thank you, Mr. Dempsey, for all that you and your
organization are working to do. I assure you of my continued prayers with the hope that all may come to a better relationship with Christ and
witness to the conversion of hearts of those who so desperately need it.

God bless,

Tom Bounds '10

Greer Hannan said...

Perhaps some will think it is insignificant, but I would like to correct a detail in Mr. Dempsey's comments. Catholicism must be involved in all six credit hours of theology which undergraduates are required to take at Notre Dame. After Foundations of Theology (THEO 101) students must take a 200-level THEO to fulfill the second requirement. Higher-level theology classes do not fulfill that second requirement, even for Theology majors, because they are not specifically required to include Catholicism. All 200-level classes are required to include it to achieve 200-level status. For example, I took the World Religions class for my 200-level, and within the first week we were talking about the Council of Trent and Vatican II.

I also think it is significant that at Notre Dame all of our undergraduates have to study the DISCIPLINE of theology, not take religion courses or simply memorize doctrine and Scripture. We study the discipline of science, which opens up a certain kind of knowledge through objective observation, experimentation, and analysis, but we also study the discipline of theology which takes up the question of what we can understand about God, ourselves, our world, and our relationship to God from the standpoint of faith. Notre Dame introduces tomorrow's great scientists and politicians to the idea that faith can speak with a sophistication which dispells the tension between faith and reason. To quote Theology Department Chair John Cavadini from a January 2007 Irish Rover article, “To learn that there is a style of thinking as rigorous as any other that begins in commitment rather than ends in commitment, to me that’s a witness that’s badly needed in education today,”

Bill Dempsey said...

I welcome the thoughtful comments of Greer Hannan and Tom Bounds. Both provide information and perspectives missing from my posting. Brevity is sometimes, at least, the enemy of adequate exposition. I offer these further comments:

I cannot improve on Mr. Bounds’ description of the abiding faith that characterizes so much of the life at Notre Dame. It proceeds from a student body that is still 85% Catholic and the dedicated priests and committed professors who live their faith and nurture it in others through instruction and example. One of the my treasured rewards in two years of participation in Project Sycamore has been to come to know some of the finest young Catholics I have ever met. Their palpable faith has deepened because they have been at Notre Dame. They are ornaments to the University, and in turn its gift to them is beyond measure. Ms. Riley, in her excellent “Catholicism, Inc.” article in the Wall Street Journal, is right to observe, “Students are probably the most religious part of Notre Dame.”

But it is dangerous in the extreme to judge the Catholic identity of Notre Dame by facts such as these, for they draw attention away from the fundamental questions: primarily the composition of the faculty, and secondarily the curriculum. The University is first of all a place of learning, not a social service organization or a liturgical society or a parish. Though it is of all of those as well, in the long run their vitality depends upon what is being taught and who is teaching. As James T. Burtchaell, C.S.C., shows in his magisterial “The Dying of the Light,” these external signs of religion persist long after the heart and mind of the university, the faculty, has been secularized. These manifestations proceed basically from a student body that stays Catholic, or Baptist, or Methodist for a long time after the school has become largely secular. A public image persists even though undeserved, and alumni continue to send their children to a school that they remember as it was, but do not know as it is.
That is why, as Father Burtchaell reports, alumni and others outside the university do not wake up to the danger that the university is at risk of losing its religious identity until it is too late. And that is why there is a Project Sycamore.

As to the Theology Department and the curriculum, Greer Hannan’s comments afford me the opportunity to pay tribute to Dr. Cavadini and his colleagues. While they would not, I’m sure, claim near perfection, this fine Department is a tribute to their years of effort. Without it, the future would be bleak indeed.

More the pity that the Department is vastly underused. I realize that three hours are required in addition to Foundations. I meant to take account of that through my perhaps too cryptic “specifically Catholic “ modifier. While optional courses, including those in world religions or hunger or peace of medical ethics, are doubtless taught from a Catholic perspective, they are not aimed at continuing the overarching instruction in the essentials of Catholic faith and tradition and history that is provided in Foundations. And in any case, six hours in four years is thin gruel indeed when the cupboard is so fully stocked.

And let the relative strength of the Theology Department not distract us from the rest of the University. Tom Bounds’s citation of Dr. McInerney’s compliment to the Theology Department takes me to his description of his Philosophy Department (“I Alone Have Escaped to Tell You” p. 157):

“ . . .[T]hose of us who have spent long careers in traditionally Catholic institutions are involved in a long twilight struggle within the walls. Positions dubiously compatible with the faith are taught all around us. A young colleague of mine announced in a departmental faculty meeting that, since he regarded Catholicism as false, he had a moral obligation to disabuse his students of their faith. That is where we have come.”

That takes me to where I began: the faculty as the heart of the matter. And I stress that my colleagues and I are not making up the standard by which the University is to be measured. It is the University that, in its Mission Statement, tells us it is the faculty. And it is the University that tells us what the composition should be. I think it inarguable that this essential test is not now being met.

Of course Notre Dame is still Catholic in many ways. Secularization is not a day or night affair. Georgetown is still Catholic in many ways. I know it well. We attend inspiring weekly liturgies on campus. Christ is present in the Eucharist in the many Masses offered daily. A couple of weeks ago Father Miscamble spoke at Georgetown about the importance of having a solidly Catholic majority at a Catholic university. His message was received with frowns and strained croaking. But it was welcomed – silently -- by the head of student Right to Life and her companion, with whom we visited, and by a dissenting professor who expressed his views later. That is the state of affairs at this way station on the road to secularization that Notre Dame has been traveling for some time.

In sum, it is the school of your children and grandchildren that is at stake. Take and treasure what you’ve been given. Work to see that it will be here for your children and grandchildren. I hope you join us in Project Sycamore. It is for your generation much more than for ours.

Joe Lindsley said...

Regarding the Catholicity of ND's Theology classes: In the fall of 2001, my Intro. to Theo. professor told us that the Church no longer believed in the Real Presence. I had to inform the Protestants in the class that this was not the case. A couple years later, speaking to some of her former students, she recanted.

In that class and others, we were also cautioned against the "error" of reading the Old Testament as though it foreshadowed the coming of Christ. (St. Augustine's view, for example, that the Old Testament should be read in the light of Charity and the New Testament, was barred from discussion.) There was a fancy, "technical" name for this error, but it was too complicated too remember. Ironically, the non-Catholic Intro. to Theo. professors had a reputation for representating Catholicism fairly.

Has this situation improved?

Greer Hannan said...

I think it has improved over the past several years, under Prof. Cavadini's guidance, but I have to admit that in continually recurring conversations with my classmates and the underclassmen about their experiences in theology classes at Notre Dame, it is always difficult to judge how representative their anecdotal evidence, good and bad, is of the overarching experience of theology at Notre Dame.

Dan Amiri said...

Unfortunately, I'm chiming in a little late to this discussion, but I wish to share the Pope's words to Catholic educators which can be found on "" Search for "university."

"Clearly, then, Catholic identity is not dependent upon statistics. Neither can it be equated simply with orthodoxy of course content. It demands and inspires much more: namely that each and every aspect of your learning communities reverberates within the ecclesial life of faith. Only in faith can truth become incarnate and reason truly human, capable of directing the will along the path of freedom (cf. Spe Salvi, 23). In this way our institutions make a vital contribution to the mission of the Church and truly serve society. They become places in which God's active presence in human affairs is recognized and in which every young person discovers the joy of entering into Christ's 'being for others' (cf. ibid., 28)."

If a university does not actively promote the "life of faith" according to the disciplines of the Church, it is not a Catholic university. The Pope goes on to describe obstacles to the "life of faith." Notre Dame does contain redeeming aspects, but it also has many obstacles. At the very least, we are not as "Catholic" as we should be.

Finally, this is not to say that a preponderence of Catholic faculty is not important; indeed, it is. But the Catholic faculty must in turn foster the life of faith else all is for naught.

Bill Dempsey said...

Dan rightly points to a passage in the Pope's address in which he emphasizes, in effect, that form without more -- orthodox course content, "number," which he elsewhere referred to as "number of students" -- does not make a school Catholic. But it is important to bear in mind that the history of secularization in this country teaches that it is hazardous in the extreme to conclude that because in various ways university life does "reverberate with the ecclesial life of faith" the university's Catholic identity is assured. As Fr. Burtchaell shows in "The Dying of the Light," these outward manifestations of a once sturdy religious identity continue long after the religious commitment of the faculty has been fatally compromised. The school's reputation persists though it is no longer deserved; and alumni keep sending their sons and daughters in the belief that the school is as it was 30 or so years ago. But in the end the religious culture of the school collapses visibly. Then alumni and others wonder how it happened without their knowing it was coming. And so, while it is true that the absence of manifestations of a living faith such as those described by the Pope will disclose the absence of religious identity, it does not follow that their presence proves the presence of religious identity at the heart of the university -- the faculty. It is essential to bear this lesson of the history of secularization at this stage in the history of Notre Dame. The penalty for not doing so may be a very unwelcome surprise.