education Published Elsewhere

Death of a Catholic University?

The following column was published in The Observer on Thursday, November 15, 2012.

Recently, an article in Scholastic Magazine sought to answer the question: “Is Notre Dame Catholic Enough?” The author referenced the deeply troubling book by law professor Charles Rice, “What Happened to Notre Dame,” as well as Pope John Paul II’s apostolic constitution on Catholic Universities, “Ex Corde Ecclesiae.”

At the very least, Notre Dame can be called, as philosophy professor Alfred Freddoso calls it, “something like a public school in a Catholic neighborhood.” With dozens of chapels, countless Masses, active Campus Ministry and Catholic-centered health services, Notre Dame provides an extremely Catholic neighborhood.

These things do not make a university a Catholic university. Usually, when Notre Dame’s Catholic identity is attacked, my friends reference these “neighborhood aspects” in defense. These are all good and necessary parts of a Catholic university, but they fail to justify why we are a Catholic university qua “university.” We must look at the formation of the education, considering curriculum and faculty hiring.

It may be troubling that in 2009 the University stopped publishing the percentage of Catholic faculty at Notre Dame. Between 1985 and 2000, the percentage of Catholic faculty in the College of Arts & Letters had decreased by about 20 percent. In 2007, only half of the faculty overall identified as Catholic. The University’s 2012 “Report on Catholic Mission” omits this fact, but it does include the 5 percent decrease in students identifying as Catholic over the last 10 years. More than 80 percent of Notre Dame’s students identify as Catholic, but this is not sufficient to guarantee a robust Catholic university. If an institution is interested in providing a “Catholic education,” we ought to be more interested in the Catholic identity of those providing the education.

Nonetheless, we can turn to “Ex Corde Ecclesiae” to consider our Catholic identity, as Professor Matthew Ashley, chair of the theology department, does in the Scholastic article. He refers to the document and claims that Notre Dame fits its description of the Catholic university. However, he glosses over one of the most obvious discrepancies between the theology department and the vision of Ex Corde. The document requires: “Catholics who teach the theological disciplines in a Catholic university are required to have a mandatum granted by competent ecclesiastical authority.” While many members of the theology department do have this mandatum, others have openly opposed such a requirement. When I called the department as a prospective student in order to inquire about the mandate, I was informed that I would have to contact individual professors to discover which ones had it. The University said finding a professor who would teach Catholic theology was my responsibility.

The state of our curriculum offers little consolation. Students at Notre Dame are required to take two theology and two philosophy courses. However, there is no guarantee that any kind of positive exposure to the intellectual tradition of the Church will be provided. I regularly hear from students that their Introduction to Theology professors were quite antagonistic towards Church teaching. I am shocked at the number of Notre Dame students who have never read Aquinas, or make claims about “Catholic identity” without having read Ex Corde.

There are exceptions. However, in a 1989 article, PLS professor Janet Smith wrote: “Some of the faculty would be most dismayed to learn that conversions have taken place . . . Again, the students are generally much better educated than their peers but they fall far short of being examples of the kind of student one would want to have graduate from a Catholic university. For instance, they would not be able to explain with much clarity the relation of faith and reason or of nature and grace; they would have virtually no idea why Catholicism claims to be the one true faith; few would be determined to live a committed Catholic life. Some, of course, may have these abilities but it is not the case that such is our goal.”

Is this our goal? Do we provide a Catholic education? Is this a Catholic university? Ask seniors: “What is the relation of faith and reason? Of nature and grace? Why does Catholicism claim to be the one true faith? Do you live a committed Catholic life?”

Christopher Damian is a senior. He can be reached at

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

1 comment on “Death of a Catholic University?

  1. Pingback: Franciscan U, Blasphemy, and the PA Grand Jury Report – A Blog by Chris Damian

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