When it comes to American Catholic universities, none are so scrutinized as the University of Notre Dame.
Rightfully so. Notre Dame’s prestige, potential, and also its notorious blunders have seated it firmly in the center of the American Catholic eye. Above all, the fact that questions concerning Notre Dame’s “Catholicity” are still live questions (Fr. Bill Miscamble has said that “a battle for the heart and soul” of the university is underway; Patrick Deneen says of his coming to South Bend two years ago that he wanted to take part in the struggle for the university’s Catholic identity) compels many to take an interest in the fate of Our Lady’s university.
The question, “Is Notre Dame still a Catholic university?” does not necessarily share the same answer to the question, “Does Notre Dame still offer a viable Catholic education?” But the two questions are tightly-bound together. The sort of education on offer at any university is a function first and foremost of that university’s faculty; here, the “Catholicity” of Notre Dame’s faculty is crucial to answering both questions.
Nor is this coincidence incidental: Ex Corde Ecclesiae (ECE) instructs, “In order not to endanger the Catholic identity of the University or Institute of Higher Studies, the number of non-Catholic teachers should not be allowed to constitute a majority within the Institution, which is and must remain Catholic” (General Norms, Article 4, § 4). The American bishops reiterated this message in their 2001 application of ECE, and Notre Dame’s own mission statement includes the same “litmus test” for Catholic identity: “The Catholic identity of the University depends upon, and is nurtured by, the continuing presence of a predominant number of Catholic intellectuals. This ideal has been consistently maintained by the University leadership throughout its history.”
So, then, one can answer the first question—concerning a school’s Catholic identity—by reference to its faculty composition. And this is a test that Notre Dame fails, badly.
As of two years ago, when I investigated the Catholic faculty composition for an Irish Rover article, roughly 54 percent of tenured and tenure-track faculty were Catholic. Of course, one need not be Catholic to contribute to and be invested in the Catholic mission of Notre Dame. (Several notable advocates for the university’s Catholic mission are not.) One does wonder, though, what percentage of the Catholic faculty truly embodies the Catholic intellectual tradition.
Robert Benne, the Lutheran ethicist and educator, offered one informed guess after having studied Notre Dame for his 2001 book on religious educational institutions, Quality With Soul: How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep Faith with Their Religious Traditions. Benne argued that, at most, 20 percent of the university’s Catholic faculty “were engaged with or cared about the Catholic aspect of the University’s mission,” a figure that professor emeritus Walter Nicgorski cited several years ago in a talk on the same topic. The Sycamore Trust, an alumni group devoted to maintaining Notre Dame’s Catholic integrity, has estimated a comparable percentage.
This being the case, an answer to the second question—whether Notre Dame still offers a viable Catholic education (by which I mean a formational education that prepares students to flourish as Catholic adults)—comes into focus. Nicgorski has noted that “it is increasingly the case today that a young person going through the critical and questioning formative years of an education at Notre Dame might not encounter a practicing Catholic informed and engaged by the Catholic intellectual tradition.” The experience of many of my classmates confirms this.
Furthermore, as Fred Freddoso and others have emphasized, Notre Dame’s core curriculum—including its two university-mandated courses in theology and philosophy each—does not necessarily bring students into contact with the faculty who can communicate Notre Dame’s mission. According to an informal study by the Sycamore Trust, 75 percent of professors in first theology courses are graduate students, for whom interest in Notre Dame’s Catholic mission is not a primary priority. Non-majors are lucky to have an engaging experience with theology or philosophy under such circumstances.
But these numbers don't tell the entire story. While the dearth of invested Catholic faculty corresponds to a higher likeliness that students will not receive a robust Catholic education, there exist at Notre Dame many professors, resources, institutions, and dynamics that altogether are wholly conducive to, and apt to result in, as rich and vibrant a Catholic education as one can find in America—if one knows where to look and intentionally seeks out these authentic components.
“Theology plays a particularly important role in the search for a synthesis of knowledge as well as in the dialogue between faith and reason,” John Paul II writes (ECE 19). Notre Dame’s theology department is second to none. With faculty like John Cavadini, Cyril O'Reagan, Fr. Brian Daley, SJ (upon whom our pope emeritus has conferred an award for outstanding research and scholarship in the field of patristics [if only Ratzinger had accepted Fr. Hesburgh’s invitation to teach at Notre Dame!]), Gary Anderson, Ann Astell, Gabriel Reynolds, David Fagerberg, John P. Meier, and others; with many upper-level theology courses being made available to non-majors; with several one-credit (read: very easily fit into even the busiest schedules) “Know Your Catholic Faith” courses (on topics such as Mariology, Eucharistic theology, and vocation and discernment) being offered every semester; and with the theology major being one of the most manageable supplemental majors to take on (and being the fastest-growing major on campus): Students seeking to engage advanced and diverse theological studies at Notre Dame will not be disappointed. Ex Corde Ecclesiae’s teaching that courses in Catholic doctrine are to be made available to all students (General Norms, § 5) is embodied brilliantly at Our Lady’s university.
Neither are philosophy courses that engage the Catholic tradition lacking in substance. Between Freddoso and John O’Callaghan, Notre Dame houses two prominent contemporary Thomists. (John Finnis also teaches courses at Notre Dame in both the fall and the spring; John Haldane just concluded his year-long visit.) Alasdair MacIntyre remains on campus as an emeritus. David Solomon’s “Morality and Modernity” is perhaps the most popular philosophy course at Notre Dame; and David O’Connor and Sean Kelsey teach ancient philosophy as well as anyone.
Notre Dame’s Religion and Literature program is excellent, and the dual philosophy and theology undergraduate degree is possibly the school’s most synthetic major. The growing interdisciplinary Catholic Social Tradition minor fulfills admirably John Paul II’s injunction that “the promotion of social justice is of particular importance for each Catholic University, to be shared by its teachers and developed in its students” (ECE 34). Several highly-involved institutes on campus, led by the Center for Social Concerns, also actualize this vision of the late Holy Father.
The political science department houses several outstanding Catholic faculty, whose courses are perennial favorites for students of any stripe—I recall taking “Politics and Conscience” alongside several aerospace engineers—who want to engage the Tradition’s insights into politics. Deneen, since arriving from Georgetown two years ago, has thrown himself tirelessly into building up Notre Dame’s Catholic character and into enfranchising students to seek to do the same.
Finally, in a different vein: The university’s undergraduate business school has ranked number one in the nation five years running, according to Bloomberg Businessweek’s 2014 ranking of Best Undergraduate Business Schools. The business school prides itself on communicating the ethics of business to its students, and many of its faculty take very seriously the integration of the techne of business with the Catholic vision for a just society. Furthermore, as the aforementioned Rover article details, the percentage of Catholic faculty in the business department is rising as the result of an intentional effort.
The liturgical and sacramental life of a Catholic university is not its defining characteristic: What goes on inside the classroom is. Nevertheless, students will want for nothing in these dimensions of their faith while at Notre Dame either, so long as they’re disposed to want them.
Campus features 57 chapels, in which more than 150 Masses are celebrated weekly during the academic year, ranging from 6 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Opportunities for liturgical or catechetical participation and formation abound: Between Campus Ministry and its plethora of local teaching opportunities, retreat offerings, faith formation groups, and the outstanding Institute for Church Life (which hosts the annual Notre Dame Vision summer camp, houses the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, and effects untold good under the directorship of Cavadini), students are offered a holistic pastoral and Catholic spiritual environment in which to grow into mature members of the Church’s sacramental and liturgical life.
The Center for Ethics and Culture, founded by Solomon and directed now by O. Carter Snead, remains Notre Dame’s most vibrant center of Catholic intellectual thought and scholarship. The Center’s annual Fall Conference, which gathers together some of the nation’s top scholars, provides an unparalleled forum through which students can encounter dynamic topics that lie at the intersection of Catholicism and culture.
Whether they be interested in the Church’s sacramental, liturgical, or intellectual heritage and fabric, students at Notre Dame gain access to a cornucopia of resources and opportunities that can only be described as excellent.
Many other instances of the components of a robust Catholic education could be mentioned in support of the correct answer to the second original question posed in this article (the availability of a robust Catholic education); many such instances are propped up, justly so, on Notre Dame’s website and elsewhere. But any investigation of Notre Dame’s Catholic character is incomplete without the acknowledgment that the Catholic faculty problem is both symptomatic of and contributes to a deep loss, if not abdication, of Catholic identity.
“By its very nature, each Catholic University makes an important contribution to the Church's work of evangelization. It is a living institutional witness to Christ and his message, so vitally important in cultures marked by secularism …” (ECE 49). Pope Francis echoed these words when he charged Notre Dame’s administrators in January to provide “unambiguous testimony” to its institutional Catholicism, “especially in the face of efforts, from whatever quarter, to dilute that indispensable witness.”
Notre Dame can hardly be accused of offering “unambiguous testimony” to its foundational religious character. Consequently, American Catholics wonder (and argue) whether Notre Dame is “still a Catholic university.” Sadly, Notre Dame fails its own (and the Church’s) identity test in that regard.
But a more practical question on the minds and hearts of many American Catholics is where they can send their children to receive a viable, robust, fruitful Catholic education, a tertiary schooling experience from which students can emerge as Catholic adults prepared to live as vibrant witnesses to the world in service to the Church. I submit that Notre Dame belongs in every responsible answer to that query, and that the Catholic educational experience on offer at Notre Dame is among the very best in America. One just has to be intentional—and perhaps lucky—to experience it.
Join as a member now and get a free copy of The Essential Ethika Politika.
Plus, help make EP accessible for thousands of readers every day. And receive inbox updates, get access to members-only content, and interact with other EP readers and authors!
One fine body…