In many respects the concept of a Roman Catholic institution of higher learning seems to be a contradiction. Roman Catholicism is perceived by the world to be a religion with closed-minded views and unchangeable beliefs, yet at the core of a university education is an openness and engagement with opposing viewpoints and a continual intellectual challenge to strongly held worldviews. At a Roman Catholic university, these forces are constantly in tension with one another.
At the soul of the Catholic university is its ultimate desired end: making Catholic saints through the transmission of Catholic doctrines and morals. This Catholic foundation at the root of a traditional education allows for the complete development of the person into moral and responsible citizens, witnessing the Catholic faith in everyday life. Yet the future-sightedness of this teleology can lead to an overemphasis on the present; the present-oriented view tends to focus on what is more important in the eyes of the world: the academic success and worldly prestige of an institution of higher education.
As a Roman Catholic university, Notre Dame has often struggled with the tension inherent in the Catholic university setting. After its rapid transformation from a school largely devoted to football to an elite educational institution (still just as passionate about football), the pressure to conform to the standards set forth by other, more secular universities suddenly became more poignant.
By and large, Notre Dame has managed to remain faithful to its Catholic foundations. Yes, it has faltered and stumbled at times – particularly with the honoring of President Obama as a commencement speaker in 2009. Yet despite its shortcomings, Notre Dame’s overall narrative has been one of carefully negotiating the tension in its role as a Catholic university while simultaneously adhering to the Catholic faith throughout the many and diverse challenges posed to its university identity.
On the one hand, this engagement with the ideas of the world is necessary, constructive and beneficial. The challenges to the Roman Catholic doctrine thrust upon institutions of higher learning encourage a deeper personal and institutional understanding of Church doctrine and emphasize the necessity of a complete understanding of one’s faith. Additionally, secular challenges reinforce the importance of the university as a place for open, rational discourse, allowing for the articulation of opposing positions and, hopefully, a solution to the problem. Because of this tension, there is always potential for a greater spiritual growth if the challenges are properly addressed by the university.
In the end, it is important to acknowledge that although Notre Dame is among competitive company, most notably its Ivy League peers, the most distinguishing characteristic remains – and should remain – its Catholic identity. Notre Dame should be, using the imagery of Matthew 5:14, “the light of the world. A city set on a hill [that] cannot be hidden.” Notre Dame is not supposed to be the follower; it is supposed to be the followed. Notre Dame’s mission is to educate both the mind and the heart, and if it truly believes in this model of education, it should uphold the Catholic faith, the source of the true education of the heart.
Notre Dame’s Roman Catholicism is not incompatible or contradictory with the goals of higher education, but rather is a guiding truth for authentic expressions of intellectual and spiritual maturation. In many ways the missions of evangelization and sanctification of the Roman Catholic faith mutually reinforce the goal of education – challenging and strengthening one’s convictions and holiness allows one to more effectively teach and witness how to properly engage one’s faith in the world. At the same time, there is always the risk that a shift to either a secular or religious extreme could upset the delicate balance upon which Notre Dame rests. If the balance is upset, either dialogue will cease to take place and the university or the Roman Catholic character will begin to disintegrate. If Notre Dame fails to walk the tenuous tightrope upon which it currently treads – and it has flirted with free-fall more than once in the past decade – Notre Dame would retain its name, but would no longer be Notre Dame.
Bob Burkett is a senior anthropology and political science major who struggles to understand how Australia and New Zealand use the word “chips” but make no differentiation between French fries and potato chips. If you have thoughts on the matter, or would like to have a kick with an Aussie rules football, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.