Lecture addresses how to reclaim university’s Catholic identity

The Chester and Margaret Paluch Lecture hosted at the Union League Club of Chicago on March 11 featured a presentation by Father Bill Miscamble, CSC, titled, “What is the Future for Notre Dame?”.

Father Miscamble, Professor of History at Notre Dame and the 2014 Paluch Professor of Theology at Mundelein Seminary, was joined by Father Robert Barron, President of Mundelein Seminary, in his discussion about what it means to be a Catholic university.

Father Miscamble noted a tendency to deny that Catholic schools will continue down the same path of secularism as many Protestant schools: “If you’re looking for PR fluff you’ve come to the wrong place.”

In his presentation, Fr. Miscamble drew on Pope John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation on Catholic education, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, in describing the important mission of Catholic universities as a part of the Church, to evangelize and influence contemporary culture.

Catholic universities must distinguish themselves as places of unique teaching and seek the understanding of the whole of reality insofar as the whole world is God’s creation, Fr. Miscamble said.

“Scholars must seek the truth responsibly as part of the search for truth and God,” he continued. “All disciplines must be connected.”

In these institutions, Catholic beliefs cannot be separated from teaching and study.

“Students must have an informed view of what is good and be challenged to live good lives where faith is not sequestered into some private domain,” Fr. Miscamble declared.

As Fr. Barron articulated, this trend was advanced in large part because of the 1967 Land O’Lakes conference, at which Catholic university leaders gathered to discuss the role of Catholic institutions in modern higher education.

“Catholicism by its very nature cannot be positioned by any institution alien to itself,” Fr. Barron said, because Catholicism speaks of God, who is the act of “to be” itself.

The Land O’Lakes statement assumed that modern Catholic universities were universities first and Catholic second, Fr. Barron said. When universities appeal to the virtues of openness and dialogue, as Notre Dame did in honoring President Obama at the 2009 commencement ceremony, “[t]hey are operating out of the Land O’ Lakes assumption that the ideals of the modern university trump the ideals of Catholicism.”

Concern for national rankings and lack of interest in the philosophical vision of Notre Dame has slowly led to a form of “beige Catholicism” that has given up what was distinctive and countercultural about Catholic institutions.

Father Miscamble believes there is still hope for Notre Dame: “There is so much right with Notre Dame to allow it to recover from the fraying of its Catholic identity which has occurred, as evident with the decrease of Catholic faculty and fragmentation of its curriculum.”

Father Miscamble told the Rover: “This idea that there can be some distinction between Catholicism and the university needs to be put completely to rest as we fashion this new Notre Dame that emerges from the heart of the Church.”

He suggested four areas where Notre Dame can improve to salvage its Catholic identity: mission, faculty, curriculum and student life.

There must be a clear articulation of the mission; all mission statements are meaningless unless they actually shape the university. This vision should influence the decisions of all the participants of the university, Fr. Miscamble argued.

“We are linked to the institutional Church and indeed are glad precisely because of that,” He exclaimed. “Catholic universities’ very existence represents an implicit critique of the highly secularized elite culture.”

This mission, Father Miscamble explained, cannot be accomplished without a faculty that shares in this mission, because they necessarily influence what is taught.

“When a faculty is hostile to the mission of the institution, its attenuation is likely. When a faculty is passive, the mission is likely to be anemic. But when a faculty is committed, there is every likelihood that the mission will be fulfilled,” he explained.

If Catholic universities cannot distinguish their curriculum from those of secular schools, then they are not upholding their Catholic identity.

“Surely we must give attention to providing core curriculum that might provide some sense of what an educated Catholic should know, including about the existence of God, about the ultimate ends of the human person and the proper goals of society and how they might be reached,” Fr. Miscamble asserted.

Student life, though, needs to supplement the teachings of the curriculum. Father Miscamble emphasized that “Catholic colleges and universities must notably draw students into good and constructive ways of living and away from the hookup culture and gross abuse of alcohol that characterizes too much of campus life.”

“The most crucial task facing Notre Dame today and going forward is to preserve and enhance its Catholic mission and identity. This certainly is the challenge that Pope Francis put before the Notre Dame trustees,” Fr. Miscamble concluded. “There are already plenty of schools where intellect has managed to detach itself from morality. Let our institution be different.”

Hailey Vrdolyak is a sophomore political science and Spanish major who enjoys catching sharks. To talk to her about any type of fishing, contact her at hvrdolya@nd.edu.