Madeline Gillen, Campus Editor
For Notre Dame: Battling for the Heart and Soul of a Catholic University, written by Rev. Wilson (Bill) Miscamble CSC, will be released by St. Augustine’s Press early this May. Fr. Miscamble is a history professor here at the University of Notre Dame and will celebrate his 25th anniversary of ordination this spring. For Notre Dame, a compilation of articles and talks written over the past twenty years, provides unique insight into life at Our Lady’s University. The following interviews with Fr. Miscamble and Professor David Solomon, author of the book’s foreword, were conducted by Madeline Gillen exclusively for the Irish Rover.
Gillen: For Notre Dame includes a range of articles and talks spanning twenty years of your time at Notre Dame. What unifies all these pieces?
Father Miscamble: This is a book that asks its readers to reflect deeply upon the ongoing struggle to determine the present mission of Notre Dame and its future course. Notre Dame’s mission as a Catholic university has been the subject of significant debate for at least the past four decades. I have been a participant, to some extent, in what I call the battle for the heart and soul of Notre Dame for at least half of that time. This collection brings together some of my written and spoken contributions to this debate. I trust that my deep commitment to see Notre Dame develop as a truly authentic Catholic university gives these varied pieces a real unity and coherence.
The title of your book For Notre Dame seems very fitting, as you have devoted your life to Notre Dame as a Holy Cross priest and professor in the History Department. Is your book composed of a mix of priestly and professorial addresses?
Your question prompts me to clarify that in the Congregation of Holy Cross I seek to use my training as a historian, and whatever my talents for teaching as a part of my fundamental calling as a priest. Of course I also preach and celebrate the liturgy but I have never seen myself as having a bifurcated calling in which I switched hats from “professor” at one moment to “priest” at another. My teaching and my scholarship from the outset were subsumed within my priestly calling. [That is why I ask my treasured students to address me as a priest rather than as a professor!] My aim is not only to improve minds but to shape souls. I hope to nurture not only the intellectual lives of my students but also their religious and moral lives. I wish I had done this better over the years and I apologize especially to my present students for the limitations of my efforts.
That said, I want to suggest that some of these pieces are more “academic” through their focus on ways to build a Catholic university and on the role and responsibility of faculty within it. Others are more explicitly “pastoral” in which I offer counsel to students and also address matters concerning the priesthood and Holy Cross. A third important category would be more “polemical” pieces in which I address some of the controversies that afflicted Notre Dame in recent years, such as the decision to honor President Obama and the attempt to appoint a pro-choice trustee to the Board.
In your introduction you state: “I seek to deepen understanding of the university so that its fundamental challenges can be faced honestly and a better course charted for it.” What are some of these challenges?
The major challenges that confront Notre Dame are tied up with the university’s willingness to pursue a distinct course so as to be an institution engaged on a great quest for truth, goodness and beauty. In profound ways Notre Dame must be a university in which students encounter Christ.
In meeting this challenge the university must reject the path of conformity that leads to an unimaginative imitation of what occurs on the campuses of supposed “preferred peer” schools. Our school should be an intellectual bastion where what Benedict XVI called “the dictatorship of relativism” does not prevail. Sadly, the temptations to conform are notable and they have not always been resisted here. The perceived ‘costs’ of not accommodating to the dominant secular educational model can seem significant. But Notre Dame must accept the challenge and resist worshipping before the “golden calf” of the U.S. News and World Report rankings with all that implies. It must assuredly refrain from disguising itself as a genuine Catholic university by maintaining only the elements of the Catholic ‘neighborhood’—e.g. residential life, campus ministry, etc.—while allowing the crucial Catholic ‘school’—the academic heart of the university—to deteriorate.
I argue in my book that in order too meet these formidable challenges Notre Dame must unequivocally adopt Ex Corde Ecclesiae as its essential guide. It must grasp at a deep level that it operates “from the heart of the Church.” Such an institution will pay close attention to the essential questions involved in the daily operation of all universities—what is taught and who teaches it? Notre Dame now faces crucial challenges concerning both its curriculum and the composition of its faculty. It must work much harder to hire faculty—Catholics and non-Catholics—who are deeply supportive of its mission and prepared to provide a genuine Catholic education for its students. It must offer an education that allows its students to grasp the complementary nature of faith and reason, receive a deep understanding and love for the truth, and gain a clear appreciation of the Catholic moral and social vision. There is much to be done to meet these challenges!
What is the most important advice you offer students in your book?
Permit me to say initially that I am grateful to have had the chance to teach Notre Dame students for over a quarter of a century. I have been the beneficiary of their goodness and their friendship. My own good teachers over the years have modeled for me integrity, honesty, perseverance, intellectual and moral courage, and a profound commitment to the truth and I can only pray that in some ways I have modeled these virtues for my students. I hope I also have conveyed my desire to follow the path of Jesus so as to serve them as a teacher. My aim is to awaken and to deepen each student’s sense of his or her own giftedness and then to challenge them to use their gifts well in the service of others. I try to call forth my students to live out their vocations as Christian disciples so as to make some difference in the world.
Let me simply add that my essential “advice” to students here is that they view the world and their education through the lens of faith. They should be students on a quest for genuine meaning who want the distinctive education that Notre Dame should provide. They should not be content to drift through this place content to obtain some limited ‘vocational’ training—whether it be pre-med or in the business school—but rather they should be asking how are they responding to God’s call in their lives. Students (and faculty!) must not be afraid to live our faith openly and publicly at Notre Dame. We must avoid sequestering it into some private sphere, as so many Christians do. I hope the counsel in my book encourages students in this way.
I recently wrote an editorial on women at Notre Dame. Do you speak to this topic in your book?
Thanks, Madeline, for introducing a topic that is not addressed well in any explicit way in my book! Now let me assure you that my general counsel to students which I mention above is aimed at both women and men, but I only touch on specific issues regarding women in certain essays, including in my open letter to Fr. Jenkins on The Vagina Monologues. In that piece I noted that much of the violence against women in our society results from a sick view that separates sex from love and genuine relationship. The fall-out from this deeply distorted view includes the commodification of sex, the portrayal of women as objects and the blatant refusal of some men to treat women with dignity and respect. This view of sex is obviously evident in the superficial and exploitative “hook-up” culture on campus, in which casual sexual relations are treated as the norm.
In short, I give some time to diagnosing aspects of this important matter but not enough to setting out positive prescriptions to aid young Catholic women in living out the full beauty of their Christian vocations, in the way you call for in your Rover editorial. Over my years at Notre Dame I have encouraged by female students to appreciate their innate dignity and worth and to respect themselves rightly and I have been blessed to come to know some amazing women. But I readily concede that it has not always been an easy path for these women. Your call for Notre Dame “to celebrate the beauty of women from a Catholic perspective” should surely be heeded. In a properly shaped curriculum here all students—women and men–should be exposed to a coherent presentation of the Church’s beautiful teachings on human sexuality and on the true nature of marriage.
In the meantime let me pick up on your own suggestion and encourage women here to read contemporary authors like Helen Alvaré and Colleen Carroll Campbell and also to participate in the important work of the Edith Stein Project. So let me conclude with that mention of the project which I know is so dear to your heart, and one which I am very glad to have participated in in past years.
Professor Solomon, if you had to give a 2-minute summary and sell of For Notre Dame, what would it be?
Father Hesburgh in his long tenure as president at Notre Dame led the university toward a position of academic prominence that made it quite clearly the most academically distinguished Catholic university in this country–and probably in the world. Since he stepped down as president, the primary question about our future has been, “What next?” In particular, every sensible person who loves Notre Dame has pondered the question, “How do we continue to “move up the rankings” set by secular disciplinary associations while retaining the distinctively Catholic character of the university.” This has been the question at Notre Dame, especially for the last thirty years. And there has been, of course, sharp disagreement about the answer to this question. Fr. Miscamble has been the leader of those who think that the policies carried out over this period have been for the most part based on a wrong answer to this question. He has been at the forefront of those who think the university leadership both in the administration and on the board of trustees has, in spite of some notable successes, been insufficiently attentive to matters of faculty hiring, especially the hiring of outstanding academics whose research and teaching stands in an appropriate relation to the Catholic intellectual tradition as it might be manifest in the different disciplines. Fr. Miscamble is in many ways perfectly suited to carry out this leadership role. He is the most distinguished scholar of his generation within the Holy Cross Order. He is an award-winning teacher and has held important administrative posts at the university (chairman of history and rector of the seminary). He has boundless energy and a charism for inspiring and leading others. And, perhaps most importantly, he loves Notre Dame and wants passionately for it to succeed in being all that it could be in the constellation of contemporary higher education. It is not surprising that he has emerged as the spokesperson for those who think Notre Dame is making important mistakes, especially in its current approach to faculty hiring. Fr. Miscamble’s new book collects in one place his most significant talks, columns, essays and homilies that have touched on these questions–and other related ones–over the past quarter century. He also includes a new intellectual autobiography recounting the development of his own ideas on these matters which everyone will find of interest. Anyone who cares about Notre Dame will want to read this book–those who agree with it and, perhaps more importantly, those who don’t.
While Fr. Miscamble’s book assuredly has points of note for non-students in the Notre Dame community and for others engaged in Catholic education, what is the particular merit of his book for students?
Why should students care about this book? At a time when we are led by men who use phrases like “the business of college athletics” and “the Notre Dame brand”, and by corporate figures who have never smelled the chalk dust of a seminar room, it would be good for students to understand what is really at stake in current debates about Notre Dame’s path to the future. You may love or loath Fr. Miscamble’s ideas, but no one who reads this book can doubt he is talking about matters that should be of central concern to us all.
Madeline Gillen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.