education Published Elsewhere

What is a Catholic University?

The following column was published in The Observer on Thursday, November 29, 2012.

Flannery O’Connor once wrote: “The Catholic novelist doesn’t have to be a saint; he doesn’t even have to be a Catholic; he does, unfortunately, have to be a novelist.” In her essay, “Catholic Novelists and Their Readers,” she notes that “poorly written novels — no matter how pious and edifying the behaviour of their characters — are not good in themselves and are therefore not really edifying.”

In “The Idea of a University,” Cardinal John Henry Newman seeks to discuss and understand the nature of a University. In “Discourse IX,” Newman states that the University teaches all subject matter in an integrated way, such that the University is a coherent whole.

Newman recognizes a primacy of secular aims in the University. This may be scandalous to some who would favor a “seminary model” for the Catholic University. The University, Catholic or otherwise, is not primarily a place for catechesis. Nor is it primarily a place of moral formation. One that functions primarily as a seminary is not a University. The University is a place for the pursuit of Knowledge. This pursuit is good in and of itself, and it does not need external justification. Newman identifies both the instrument and the result of this pursuit as “Liberal Knowledge.”

The mediocre Catholic University that is only concerned with evangelization and popular piety may be subject to Flannery O’Connor’s criticism of some “Catholic” novelists: “Even oftener, I think, we see people distorting their talents in the name of God for reasons that they think are good . . . None of us is able to judge such people themselves, but we must, for the sake of truth, judge the products they make . . . The novelist who deliberately misuses his talent for some good purpose may be committing no sin, but he is certainly committing a grave inconsistency, for he is trying to reflect God with what amounts to a practical untruth.”

Many pose the question: “Is Notre Dame a Catholic University?” However, a man or woman cannot be a Catholic novelist without being a novelist, and an institution cannot be a Catholic University without being a University.

Notre Dame’s mission statement reads: “The University prides itself on being an environment of teaching and learning which fosters the development in its students of those disciplined habits of mind, body and spirit which characterize educated, skilled and free human beings.” To this end, the University has established a “core curriculum,” “a set of required courses intended to provide every undergraduate with a common foundation in learning.” These courses are intended to provide the foundation for all the pursuits of the University and to contribute towards the pursuit of Liberal Knowledge.

Notre Dame students are not unlike the majority of their peers at competitive research universities. Many students approach required courses as a series of hoops to jump through in order to obtain a diploma. This, however, is insufficient for the pursuit of Liberal Knowledge. One who approaches courses in this way cannot truly say that he or she has received a University education.

In a University, all courses will contribute to each other. No discipline can survive on its own. Specialization is particularly antithetical to the University, because it only allows for a narrow mind. The University is concerned with the liberated mind.

Can one develop a liberal mind at Notre Dame? A professor remarked to me that Notre Dame no longer has a core curriculum. It has distribution requirements. We no longer aid our students in creating a coherent, holistic and integrated curriculum. Rather, we only ask that they take a certain number of courses in a certain number of disciplines. These courses may or may not make sense in light of one another; this largely depends on the students’ selections.

Do Notre Dame students receive a University education? Year after year, seniors have remarked to me that they wished they would have taken different courses, chosen a different major, spent their time differently. They suggest that a great amount of time here was wasted. They say that they did not receive the education they thought they had come here to get. I’m unsure if this is the case for me.

Only in determining whether Notre Dame is a University can we determine whether it is a Catholic University. Yet, perhaps the reverse is also true. Newman notes: “If the Catholic Faith is true, a University cannot exist externally to the Catholic pale, for it cannot teach Universal Knowledge if it does not teach Catholic theology.”

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 “What is a Catholic University?

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

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