The administrative response to the waves upon waves of letters from Notre Dame students and alumni, begging them not to remove the university theology requirement, as well as to the numerous sophisticated intellectual defenses of the theology requirement, seems to be one of innocent bafflement.
Despite the indications, described by Michael Bradley, that influential members of the current committee have a mandate to push significant reductions, administrative spokesmen and professors have argued that the proposal under the most serious consideration is actually fairly modest. Namely, they want to allow courses taught by non-theology professors to count toward the theology requirement, provided that these courses are sufficiently theological in content or Catholic in character.
In a certain sense, that this proposal can be seriously considered is a good sign: It would be impossible even to contemplate if there were not professors in numerous disciplines who understand how to integrate insights from Catholic theology into their approach to their native discipline and who have developed entire courses around this task. Indeed, my own experience at Notre Dame is a testament to this achievement.
However, my experience also leads me to question the soundness of the proposal in that the courses apparently being considered as counting toward a theology requirement either already have their own place in the core curriculum or are too advanced to fit comfortably as part of it.
My core curriculum experience included a seminar taught by the chair of the political science department on Catholic just war theory, an art history course on early Christian iconography and architecture (which included discussions of the theologies each icon or church represented), and a history course on the development of Christian thought on commerce and consumerism.
Although courses like these are not as common as I would like them to be, it is clear that there is already room for them in the core curriculum. It is therefore unclear what exactly the proposed change is supposed to accomplish, if these are the sort of courses the committee has in mind. The most straightforward interpretation of the proposal would replace a theology requirement with one of these courses. This would give greater visibility to these integrative courses, but there is no compelling reason for this visibility to come at the cost of a theology requirement when the sort of academic work these courses exemplify should arguably characterize not only the core curriculum, but a Catholic university as a whole.
A second possibility is that the committee wants students to be able to double-count this sort of course as both a theology requirement and another liberal arts course, thus reducing the overall number of required courses students need to take and allowing them to dive more quickly into their chosen major or otherwise have a lighter credit load. This last effect would be a great boon to some over-worked students, to be sure, but it would be a mixed blessing overall, especially since it can only be interpreted as a step backward with respect to Notre Dame’s dedication to providing a cohesive liberal arts education to all its students.
One more alternative interpretation of the current proposal is that the committee may want to allow more advanced and integrative courses from various departments, for example, a course on Dante’s Divine Comedy or on Catholicism and politics, to count as a theology course. The obvious problem with this suggestion lies in the fact that these courses are designed for students within these disciplines, and it is these students who will get the most out of these courses.
These sorts of integrative courses are only ever offered as electives by their respective departments, so I could see some appeal in allowing students within these majors to take one of them in place of a theology course in order to deepen their understanding of the implications of Catholicism for their chosen discipline. Yet even in this case, the net result is still less study of theology as such, and as Margaret Blume recently put it, “disciplinary education is formally prior to interdisciplinary education.”
I can appreciate the proposed change to the extent that it is an attempt to highlight those professors who have thought deeply enough about the connections between the Catholic intellectual and specifically theological tradition to build course syllabi around these connections. As things now stand, students usually find these courses because they have sought them out: The students who find an integrated education are the ones who were looking for it from the very start. The great mission of the core curriculum is to invite every undergraduate to engage in this great conversation between faith and reason, and so the professors teaching the core courses need to be able to show why an integrated education is worth seeking out.
I certainly don’t mean to propose that every course needs to invoke Catholicism in its title or assign theological or ecclesial texts relevant to its discipline. What is needed is for professors who have reflected deeply on the relationship between Notre Dame’s Catholic mission and their own disciplines to be confident in raising the subject with both students and colleagues. Although these professors may not constitute the majority called for in Ex Corde Ecclesiae or Notre Dame’s own mission statement, they are numerous, perhaps even more numerous than they themselves believe, and the administration should encourage them to bring their commitments forward more frequently and confidently not only in core classes, but in all of their research and teaching. Whether this—or anything else particularly worthwhile—would be accomplished or even meaningfully advanced by the proposal apparently under consideration is doubtful.