There has been a lot of commentary on the state of Catholic education and its apparent secularization. The Notre Dame invite to President Obama also focused a lot of attention on this and it does cause you to wonder exactly how we got to this point.
The book What Happened to Notre Dame? tries to answer this question in regards to Notre Dame. Charles E. Rice is Professor in the Law School, University of Notre Dame so he is able to give us an inside view of exactly what happened to this Catholic institution.
The author states in his book that he does not intend it to be polemical and to avoid any personal attacks on the faculty of Notre Dame. I believe that he certainly achieved this. That while he was totally opposed to the invite of President Obama and many of the scandalous events that have occurred on campus he concentrates on the problems themselves and not the personalities involved. He also notes the number of faculty that are faithful to the magisterium along with the positive signs of faith within the student body. So this is not in any way an attack book that does not acknowledge the positive aspects of the school. Though it also does not ignore the major problems either.
The first couple of chapters of the book focuses on the invitation to the President and the response to it. This provides a concise history of statements made by Notre Dame along with the historic opposition first by their bishop and then by a fair number of other bishops. The number of signatures on the protest petition was also a wake-up call to the administration of Notre Dame, though they preferred to keep hitting the snooze button. These chapters quite well document the most important statements made and the evident fact that Fr. Jenkins tried to place his own interpretations above that of his bishop. Fr. Jenkins’ bishop seemed much of an afterthought to him since he did not even tell him of the invitation until the President accepted it. Also detailed is NDResponse and the other groups who objected to the invite and who prayed peacefully before and during the appearance of the President.
More importantly is the history of Notre Dame in the last 40 years. Many commenters have pointed to the Land O’Lakes agreement and the false autonomy and idea of academic freedom that was championed by then-Notre Dame University President Fr. Hesburgh. Professor Rice agrees that this was a turning point and really a rejection of Cardinal Newman’s thoughts in his classic “The Idea of a University.” Professor Rice also looks at Notre Dame’s attempt to be a research university and to be well respected as being in the top tiers of research universities. It is quite interesting to read what he has to say on this topic and how the focus of the university moves towards prestige and that the education of students gets corrupted. Accepting the publish or perish model is certainly bound to hurt the actual teaching of students.
My own analysis of what has happened to Notre Dame and so many other Catholic institutions is that so many people within them came to doubt that the Church teaches the truth. That obedience to the Church became a sort of embarrassment when you are competing against secular institutions. When you mingle with your fellows at conferences saying that you actually believe what the Church teaches on contraception is rather embarrassing. Maybe my analysis is way off the mark. It just seems to me to explain how this behavior developed in to full disobedience. The autonomy they talk about can only be realized if you believe that what you want to teach is outside of Catholic truth. A hand cut off from the body is not autonomous. The same goes for a Catholic institution that cuts itself off from the Church and just adopts a Catholic facade. Cardinal Newman identified this trend before where the Queen of the Sciences – theology is dethroned and then separated from the sciences. You can only be free if you have the ability to follow the truth. Academic freedom that separates itself from areas the Church teaches on will lack the truth and thus freedom in this area. When it comes to the sciences Catholic institutions are totally free to follow where the truth leads them. Finding more and more about God’s creation is never problematic as long it does not involve destruction of innocent human life or other problems where research violates the moral law. Outside of these restraints is a gigantic area for scientific research which requires no autonomy outside of the Church. The idea that is does require this false autonomy is I think evidence that you have stopped believing in large aspects of Catholic truth.
Another area that Professor Rice focuses on is that the administration of Notre Dame has never been what you would call pro-life activism. While this is not true of individual professors and students – sadly it does indeed seem true of the administration. The dissent against the Church’s teaching on contraception certainly occurred at this university and they were also quite willing to bring on pro-abortion politicians. After Mario Cuomo was rebuked by Cardinal O’Connor for the evil “personally opposed, but” dodge. Notre Dame invited him to speak in a large hall with massive attendance. This phony dodge was not exposed for the lie it is, but passed on as if it had actual philosophical credence. The head of the theology department at the time (the infamous Fr. McBrien) in an act of fairness also invited Rep. Henry Hyde who was allowed to talk in a small basement room. Professor Rice wonders what the difference would have been for the pro-life movement if the premier Catholic institution in the United States was actively pro-life instead of passing on fraudulent arguments. Fr. Jenkins recently made some announcement in this regard in that he will be participating in the March for Life next year and a new task force supporting the “Choice for Life.” I certainly welcome Fr. Jenkins finally moves in this direction. It might seem a “”too little, too late”, but is is never too late to do what is right. Having the administration of Notre Dame becoming an active part of the pro-life cause would be a very good thing if it is more than just lip service.
Notre Dame needs to go much farther and to repudiate the disastrous Land O’Lakes agreement and the false view of academic freedom that has been bandied about. It would do will to listen to the Pope’s when he addressed this subject to educators while he was in Washington D.C.
A university or school’s Catholic identity is not simply a question of the number of Catholic students. It is a question of conviction – do we really believe that only in the mystery of the Word made flesh does the mystery of man truly become clear (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 22)? Are we ready to commit our entire self – intellect and will, mind and heart – to God? Do we accept the truth Christ reveals? Is the faith tangible in our universities and schools? Is it given fervent expression liturgically, sacramentally, through prayer, acts of charity, a concern for justice, and respect for God’s creation? Only in this way do we really bear witness to the meaning of who we are andwhat we uphold.
From this perspective one can recognize that the contemporary “crisis of truth” is rooted in a “crisis of faith”. Only through faith can we freely give our assent to God’s testimony and acknowledge him as the transcendent guarantor of the truth he reveals. Again, we see why fostering personal intimacy with Jesus Christ and communal witness to his loving truth is indispensable in Catholic institutions of learning. Yet we all know, and observe with concern, the difficulty or reluctance many people have today in entrusting themselves to God. It is a complex phenomenon and one which I ponder continually. While we have sought diligently to engage the intellect of our young, perhaps we have neglected the will. Subsequently we observe, with distress, the notion of freedom being distorted. Freedom is not an opting out. It is an opting in – a participation in Being itself. Hence authentic freedom can never be attained by turning away from God. Such a choice would ultimately disregard the very truth we need in order to understand ourselves. A particular responsibility therefore for each of you, and your colleagues, is to evoke among the young the desire for the act of faith, encouraging them to commit themselves to the ecclesial life that follows from this belief. It is here that freedom reaches the certainty of truth. In choosing to live by that truth, we embrace the fullness of the life of faith which is given to us in the Church.
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).
I don’t know why I write at all when the Pope puts it so perfectly. Accepting what Christ reveals is a mission for all of us and then bringing that truth to life in ourselves.
Professor Rice spends some time in the ending chapters using the thoughts of Pope Benedict and his encyclicals and other thoughts to address theologically what is most important in a Catholic educational institution. The Dictatorship of Relativity as then-Cardinal Ratzinger spoke out is alive and doing ill in our Catholic schools. But this book does not portend a death-knell for Notre Dame, but a path to follow to get back to the truth. Notre Dame is not the exception and this path needs to be followed by all of our educational institutions that have gone off the rails.