I chose PLS for its uniquely Catholic label. Though I deeply love PLS for its close-knit community and intellectual life, I have been surprised by the number of times I’ve heard students ask, “Why do we read this Catholic text?” or “Why don’t we read some other great book instead of this Catholic one?” or “Why do we listen to so much Catholic liturgical music in our music class?”
If many PLS students are questioning why we read Catholic authors or listen to Catholic music, to what extent does Notre Dame have a Catholic great books program?
When I asked PLS faculty members what gives PLS its Catholic character, I received the same answer from nearly all who responded. PLS is a Catholic great books program because we read more texts by Catholic authors, we take two required theology tutorials, and many of us profess ourselves Catholic or Christian.
“A majority of [PLS] students are practicing Catholics who take their faith seriously,” said Professor Henry Weinfield. “Their faith concerns,” he noted, “are often inseparable from their intellectual concerns, and so the prevailing ethos in the Program is a Catholic one.”
Professor Weinfield was quick to add, however, that though “the ethos in the Program is Catholic, what counts for ‘Catholicity’ spans a continuum of viewpoints.”
“Augustine, Aquinas, and Dante would of course be on any Great Books list,” explained Professor Nicgorski, “but St. Bonaventure, St. Anselm, Julian of Norwich, St. Teresa, and John Henry Newman show the distinctive Catholic emphasis still in the curriculum of PLS.”
“Still” in the curriculum? Has PLS’s Catholic character changed over time? Though other faculty said the program has not become “more” or “less” Catholic since its founding, Professor Nicgorski suggested that “like the academic side of the university as a whole, the Program has become less Catholic in the reduction of the number of faculty who are Catholic and in the number of requirements in philosophy and theology.”
When PLS was founded in the 1960’s as the General Program, the university still had a four course requirement for both theology and philosophy, which were strongly influenced by the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, Professor Nicgorski explained. Today, all Notre Dame students are required to take only two theology and two philosophy courses. Professor Nicgorski concluded, “The Program as well as the University has become less extensively and systematically Thomistic as well as less emphatic on a thorough philosophical and theological core.”
Today, it is possible to see PLS much like the way Professor Alfred Freddoso recently described Notre Dame, namely as “a public school in a Catholic neighborhood.” In Professor Freddoso’s analogy, “[I]t is the neighborhood, rather than the academic and intellectual life on campus, that most administrators and faculty members and students mainly have in mind when they invoke Notre Dame’s ‘Catholic character.’”
Professor Thomas Stapleford’s comments echo Professor Freddoso’s statement. “The best way I have to describe PLS,” he said, “is that it offers a program of liberal education that is grounded in the classic works of Western civilization and situated within a Catholic university.”
Time works against the student seeking a Catholic liberal arts education through the great books. In a span of three years, PLS students take up the challenge of reading 167 great books in seminars and countless others in tutorials. This exposure to the great books is crucial, but three years leaves little time for anything else. As Professor Stapleford explained, “[F]or better or worse, PLS has set its objective as introducing students to the central questions of Western intellectual life as a whole.”
This objective, however, could be the aim of any secular great books program. PLS students’ introductions to the great books are often cursory. In our attempts to understand the “central questions of Western intellectual life,” the Church’s voice is at times presented as simply one of many voices in the Western tradition.
A deeper knowledge of Catholic intellectual history reveals just how important the voice of the Church was and continues to be today. Unfortunately, the program’s Christian Theological Traditions course, which offers this history, comes only in the fall semester of a PLS student’s senior year. The PLS student progresses through the entire program without grasping from the start the Catholic tradition’s significance, which becomes quite evident in any study of the history of Western civilization.
The Church, as the oldest human institution has consistently offered answers to the important questions of life. A truly Catholic great books program, informed by the history of the Catholic intellectual tradition, should give great weight to these answers, regardless of curriculum texts or shared religious beliefs among students and faculty.
It is true, and good in itself, that PLS’s Catholic character comes partly from the amplified presence of Catholic authors in the curriculum and the shared faith of students and faculty. Since PLS students have had little or no exposure to the great texts of the Western tradition, it is the responsibility of faculty members to guide our understanding of those texts.
Today’s PLS faculty members face a great challenge. Beyond simply accepting that many students and faculty share the same faith, and beyond adding more Catholic texts or authors to the curriculum, faculty should help students to see that the voice of Catholicism and the Church is not just one among many voices in the Western tradition. Instead, the truth proclaimed by the Church should be the guide by which we not only assess the great books, but also order our study of them.
I will close by providing food for thought from the curriculum description of Thomas Aquinas College, a small Catholic great books college in California:
“The intellectual tradition of the Catholic Church contains a clear and detailed account of what education should be. Perhaps more than any other tradition, it insists that there are great books, but it goes much further than this. It explains why certain books are great, and it distinguishes among them as regards their excellence and their authority. But it does not regard the understanding of great books as an end in itself. Rather, it orders the study of all such books to an understanding of the truth about reality-a truth of which it speaks with confidence, from the word of God which it receives in faith.”
You can find Gabby in Lyons Hall, reciting sonnets and reading Plato. You can also contact her via carrier pigeon or at gspeach-at-nd.edu.