Above the east portico of the Basilica are engraved the words, “God, Country, Notre Dame.” The engraving honors Notre Dame’s sons who perished during World War I, but has come more generally to indicate the close connection that has been forged between Notre Dame—and, by extension, Catholicism—and the land to which generations of Catholic immigrants streamed, America. Catholics have gone from being deeply suspect to their WASP countrymen (Senator John F. Kennedy had to explain why he would not follow the Pope when he ran for President) to becoming the most patriotic Americans of nearly any constituency in the United States. Only at Notre Dame are the Preamble of the Constitution and duly famous lines of the Declaration of Independence read aloud before each home football game.
But there is a growing unease today among many thoughtful Catholics whether the seemingly easy relationship between Catholics and America will continue. Even as Catholics have achieved comfort, success and prominence in America, American culture has increasingly moved in a direction that makes this easygoing “at-homeness” increasingly difficult.
At the most obvious level, the needlessly hostile efforts of the Obama administration to provoke a battle with Catholics and Catholic institutions with the promulgation of the HHS Mandate came as a surprise to many Catholics who assumed that they had secured a sufficiently influential place at the political table to avoid such impositions. And the advancing gay marriage and gay rights movement is generating a complex of conflicts between both Church institutions and individuals who increasingly feel themselves to be bullied and shouted down with accusations of bigotry and intolerance—for holding firm to beliefs that have been at the heart of the faith and the Western tradition for thousands of years.
But these are only some of the most obvious contemporary challenges to Catholicism. At a deeper and more pervasive level, America is becoming an increasingly strange land to Catholics for whom their faith is most defining. American culture has become deeply degraded, with many popular shows, movies and music raining down constant pornography and encouraging pervasive materialism. Increasing numbers of institutions are defined by narrow utilitarianism that equates success with material gain—perhaps chief among them our institutions of higher education, a problem from which Notre Dame is hardly immune. Recent surveys show that a succession of generations are becoming more individualistic, less “relational,” more detached and disengaged, with “Millennials” (approximately ages 18-32) showing among the lowest comparative rates of marriage and religious affiliation of any generation in American history. The wealthy and successful are “seceding” to concentrated areas of wealth and privilege (even as they lament the growing economic divide from a safe distance). The “culture” is apparently failing on every front.
In 1981, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre (now emeritus professor at Notre Dame) published his landmark book After Virtue. In that book he described how modern philosophy, in its embrace of “emotivism” (or relativism) and its rejection of Aristotelianism had ushered in a civilization that had lost the capacity to speak about the common good and build up practices that aimed at the cultivation of virtue. He concluded the book with a paragraph that has continued to haunt many of his readers, arguing that the modern world was entering a new “Dark Ages” that resembled that time during the decline of the Roman empire. MacIntyre wrote:
“A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of goodwill turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set for themselves to achieve instead – often not recognizing fully what they were doing – was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming age of barbarism and darkness…. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have been governing us for some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for Godot, but for another – doubtless very different – St. Benedict.”
St. Benedict of Nursia was the founder of the first monasteries that became the “lifeboats” that sustained the arts and practices of civilization during the long Dark Ages, teaching, healing and sustaining a culture as Roman civilization collapsed. MacIntyre suggests that our new Dark Ages will require new monastic forms, communities in which the vital practices of civilization and virtue are sustained in an age that is not even conscious of its own barbarism.
If MacIntyre is right—and there are few days that pass that do not seem to further confirm his diagnosis—then a difficult challenge especially faces Catholic institutions, including (and perhaps especially) Notre Dame. Notre Dame’s nearly 175-year history has been devoted to lifting up a poor immigrant population into the ranks of prominence, influence and wealth in a new land. It has been wildly, improbably successful in this effort. There is good reason why Catholics are especially proud and patriotic Americans, for this land has been very good to them. However, if indeed we are part of a broken imperium, then like the earliest Church, meeting in the catacombs while the persecution unfolded above, or like the monastic movement, which preserved civilization in the unfolding Dark Ages, it may be that the Church and its institutions will need to learn anew the art of living “beside” the imperium as a kind of “contrast-society” to the pagan culture in which it finds itself residing.
If this is true—and to arrive at this conclusion requires serious and even terrifying reflection, of which I see little in evidence in much of our daily campus life—are we prepared to equip our students for such a future? Can we even begin to outline what living in such a “contrast society” might look like? Are we—faculty and the more permanent members of this community—prepared to explore and even model such a “contrast society” for our students?
At the very least, we would need to begin to think seriously about how such a “contrast society” might look. We would need particularly to focus on three areas: culture (including education), community and economy. For, especially in these three areas, we view around us the devastation wrought by the modern imperium, and the lack of real alternatives in our purported era of freedom and choice.
A “culture” is not a colorful piece of clothing or a recipe with strange spices, but a comprehensive way of life. A signal part of a culture is “doing it yourself”—to the extent that one “consumes” culture, one is likely participating in an “anti-culture,” a mirror-image of what a culture seeks to achieve—the full flourishing of virtuous human beings, meaning a direct engagement in the “practices” of culture. Are we making our own music, our own poems and stories, growing our food and cooking it with recipes learned from childhood, cultivating inherited traditions that we carefully pass on to our children? Or do we experience “culture” as individuals, usually looking into an individually-sized screen? Do we “cultivate” or do we “consume”? What would it mean to prepare our students to live lives embedded in rich and comprehensive cultures?
We use the word “community” with ease, often meaning people with a shared interest or even grievance, but a community is to be found in a place over a long period of time—often extending backwards and forwards for generations. Communities are places of memorial and remembrance, anticipation and expectance, gratitude and obligation. Americans are good at building the simulacra of communities, pop-up Eddy streets that look like an ancient downtown, but are organized around transience, convenience and impermanence. We have moved out of Bedford Falls for the suburbs of Bailey Park, not realizing that the cost of our back patios and attached garages was that when we lost $8,000, we would no longer know our neighbors well enough to ask for their help. How would we teach and model for our students what it would be to live in a real community as they begin their lives as adults and form their own families?
And perhaps most difficult, how could one begin to minimize one’s participation in the economy of the imperium? We all need to make a living and provide for our families. But are there ways of doing this that minimize our participation in an economy of consumption and waste, one that continuously generates more wants and requires constant dissatisfaction? Can we shield our children (and ourselves) from the pervasive message that the answer to all life’s problems is “more”? Can we participate in an economy in the original meaning of that word—one based in, and generative of, a “household”—attempting to transform the modern home into a place of production rather than consumption? How would we begin to teach our students how this end might be achieved—which would require ultimately a good economy embedded within a culture and a community?
Notre Dame has been exceedingly good at teaching several generations how to participate in the imperium; does it have the self-knowledge and ability to prepare itself, and our students, for a time when we may need to learn to live in contrast to it—teaching by example of something different and better, like the earliest Church in ancient Rome? For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, but loses his soul?
Patrick J. Deneen is David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame and a member of the Rover’s board of faculty advisors.