Morrissey Forum explores Notre Dame’s call to missionary discipleship

Only one year into his ministry, Pope Francis has issued a challenge to Notre Dame: Uphold the Catholic faith by your example of missionary discipleship. The 2014 Morrissey Forum, held on March 3 in the Carey Auditorium, approached this topic head-on with a discussion entitled “The Pope Francis Challenge to Notre Dame: Preserving Catholic Identity and Mission.”

The event featured speakers Martijn Cremers, Professor of Finance; Patrick Deneen, the David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Constitutional Studies; and Gerard Bradley, Professor of Law. Discussion was moderated by senior Michael Bradley [Editor’s note: Bradley is Editor-in-Chief of the Rover].

Reverend Ronald Vierling, MFC, Rector of Morrissey Manor, explained to the Rover that the annual Forum began at a time when “Student Affairs stressed the integration of the academy into residential life, expanding the notion that we are always a learning community whether that learning takes place in the classroom or in the hall.”

Since its establishment, the Morrissey Forum has focused on topics especially relevant to campus, such as, “The Obama Administration HHS Mandate and the Implication for Religious Freedom.”

On January 30 of this year, Pope Francis received university president Father John Jenkins, CSC, and members of the Notre Dame Board of Trustees at the Vatican. The Pope delivered a brief statement during the visit and his words have since been extensively examined, both at the university and in the national media.

Because Notre Dame is widely seen as the nation’s leading Catholic university, the Holy Father’s words hold special import for administration, faculty and students alike.

“The Holy Father’s address to members of the Board of Trustees and other administrators encourages reflection on the Pope’s concerns in light of the present campus reality,” Rev. Vierling said. “Catholic identity and mission are obviously foundational to Notre Dame and are elements which set it apart from its secular counterparts.”

Pope Francis commended Notre Dame for its “outstanding contribution to the Church in [the United States] through its commitment to the religious education of the young and to serious scholarship inspired by confidence in the harmony of faith and reason in the pursuit of truth and virtue.”

His statement was not all praise, however. He demanded that Notre Dame maintain its commitment to “missionary discipleship…reflected in a special way in Catholic universities, which by their very nature are committed to demonstrating the harmony of faith and reason.”

The Pope continued: “It is my hope that the University of Notre Dame will continue to offer unambiguous testimony to this aspect of its foundational Catholic identity, especially in the face of efforts, from whatever quarter, to dilute that indispensable witness.”

The discussion at this year’s Morrissey Forum concentrated on the call to missionary discipleship, and the challenge that Notre Dame faces—and will increasingly continue to face—in upholding this mission.

“The purpose of the forum was merely to jump start what many of us hope will be an extended conversation on this topic of vital importance not only to Notre Dame but to the Church at large,” said Rev. Vierling.

“The Pope issues a real challenge that I see much more as an invitation for all of us,” Cremers said during the panel. He emphasized that Notre Dame can answer this call by ensuring that all professors and students understand the Catholic faith and integrate it realistically with academics, so as to make our university an effective missionary.

Deneen argued that the Pope’s challenge to Notre Dame is two-fold. “Discipleship means faithful adherence, as much as humanly possible, to the teachings of Christ in the Gospels, and the Church’s efforts to understand this throughout history,” he said. “The missionary dimension means this discipleship has to be engaged in the world, not simply true to itself, but to speak to a world that is highly mistrustful and will often hate the message of the Gospels.”

“Pope Francis is calling Notre Dame especially to a very high role and mission, vocation and apostolate,” Bradley stated. “How things go here at Notre Dame is profoundly important to American society and the American Church. There is so much at stake.”

But is it possible for Notre Dame to fulfill this call to missionary discipleship while still flourishing as a major research university?

“I think it’s a challenge worth taking up,” Deneen asserted. “This means being true to itself and not simply conforming to the model of the research university that exists in the world. We must be bold and unique and willing to be distinctive—that’s scary to be alone and be something different.

Cremers addressed the challenge from the perspective of the Mendoza College of Business. “The challenge is to make the Catholic network at Notre Dame more widespread, particularly in business,” he said. “People see business as value-neutral but that’s not at all true—there is something distinct that we can offer the world.”

“It would be easy to conform, to market and organize ourselves in a non-Catholic way,” Deneen added. “Students can be disciples and engage the world without accepting and conforming to the world’s definitions of success. This is where our greatest challenge will lie going forward. If we don’t get this right then in the end we will have no chance in some more controversial areas.”

Bradley maintained that Notre Dame must cultivate a sense of indifference to the demands of society. “Not for the purpose of being different or indifferent,” he clarified, “but so it can give the sharp countercultural witness that our world is going to require of us. The jury is out on when Notre Dame will be that kind of lean, mean, witnessing machine.”

This challenge is especially evident in the Health and Human Services mandate, which requires Catholic institutions to provide contraceptives and abortifacient drugs in employee healthcare plans. Notre Dame graduate student Eduardo Andino asked the panelists how Notre Dame can answer the Pope’s call to missionary discipleship with respect to this divisive and prescient issue.

“What is at stake in the mandate as a matter of Notre Dame’s calling—what the limits of its material cooperation are—has precisely to do with the state of our society, what the mandate represents and the coming winter of discontent that the mandate portends,” Bradley emphasized in response. “Notre Dame’s entire responsibility as a participant in the American culture is part of what it means to be morally responsible.”

“Notre Dame is being forced by the government, even remotely or indirectly, to provide something that we are convinced hurts people,” Cremers agreed.

“This is not the last challenge Notre Dame will be receiving from an increasingly secular government and society that views the teachings of the Catholic Church as anathema and unacceptable in contemporary American society,” Deneen warned. “How we act now is indicative of how we will respond as we are continuously and perhaps even more deeply challenged as we go forward.”

Alexandra DeSanctis is a sophomore studying political science and constitutional studies. Contact her at