Notre Dame Forum event explores theology as an integral part of a Catholic education


At the end of four years, many Notre Dame students question what they will do and what they will need to know as they transition into the world outside of the university.  During the 2014-2015 academic school year, the Notre Dame Forum, established by President Rev. John I. Jenkins, CSC, will seek to explore these issues by asking the fundamental question: What do Notre Dame graduates need to know?  Each forum event will strive to focus “on the knowledge graduates require in order to face the challenges and opportunities that exist for them as participants in a democratic society and citizens of a wider world and people of faith.”

The lecture, “The Place of Theology at a Catholic University,” which took place on October 6, was part of this Forum series and focused on the importance of theology as an integral part of the curriculum at Catholic universities.  The discussion featured two theology professors, Catherine Cornille, chair of Boston College’s Theology Department, and Cyril O’Regan, Huisking Professor of Theology at Notre Dame.

O’Regan began by discussing Blessed John Henry Newman’s thoughts on why theology is an integral part of any Catholic university and why theology courses are a necessary part of the curriculum.

He explained Newman’s rationale as a twofold dynamic, which he described as “two bundles of two” reasons.  The first two reasons are explicit in the idea of the university.  On the one hand, a Catholic university’s task is to properly educate students through theology in order that they reflect and draw other implications from it in the public arena.  On the other, the main function of theology is coded in our knowledge of all the disciplines that provide purpose and ground, a unity of knowledge for a Catholic university.

The second “bundle” of reasons is implicit and can be drawn from Newman’s texts.  The first is that theology has an essential function rather than being simply another area of knowledge; the second states that theology inculcates a vision of the whole, not a composite of subject matters.

On this point, O’Regan said, “When we use the phrase ‘Catholic university,’ the adjective ‘Catholic’ should qualify the noun ‘university,’ and [Newman] perhaps would add that it should qualify it really rather than notionally; that is, the adjective ‘Catholic’ should pick out ways in which this kind of university is different from others that do not receive this designation.”

Following O’Regan, Cornille focused her remarks on the goal and role of theology at the core of a Catholic university.  As chairwoman of Boston College’s Theology Department, she discussed the challenges and new ideas about teaching theology at Boston College.  For example, a new program, “Enduring Questions and Complex Problems,” strives to offer students courses team-taught by professors from different disciplines to question issues of the self, society, faith, and doubt.  Different departments, focusing on particular contemporary problems like justice issues, would teach the “Complex Problems” component.

Cornille then revisited the topic of religious studies at Catholic universities.  She explained how shocked she was to find the increasing development of religious studies programs at both secular and Catholic universities.  Despite the rise of such programs, Cornille believes that the name “religious studies” could simply be a name change and nothing more.

“Students can graduate from these universities without having any exposure to the Catholic tradition, without understanding its basic teachings, without any training or reflecting in these teachings … this to me was a shocking realization,” Cornille explained.

She also emphasized the key factor that plays a vital role in expressing the greatness of theology to students.  Professors need to unsheathe the romance of theology, helping students to love it and know its radicality.  In essence, theology should have a soul.

Topics and issues like those mentioned during the Forum have been a principal subject of study for many theologians and professors at Notre Dame.

John Cavadini, Professor of Theology and Director of the Institute for Church Life, told the Rover,  “Theology is integral to the theory and practice of Catholic education.  This is not a ‘conservative’ or a ‘liberal’ issue and it should not be politicized as such.  Rather, it is a fundamental issue of the identity and structure of the education we offer as a Catholic university.

“Theology is a constitutive element of that education, not just one subject among others.  The active presence of theology in the curriculum means that the other disciplines are part of a wider conversation that leaves them intact as disciplines but transcends the concerns to which their methodologies necessarily restrict themselves,” he said.

“A university that understands itself as Catholic must have a genuine commitment to theology as an academic discipline,” Monsignor Michael Heintz, director of the Masters of Divinity program,explained to the Rover.  “However, it is important that theology not be merely cordoned off into its own little sphere, in isolation from other disciplines.  This is why at Notre Dame there is a theology department within the College of Arts and Letters and university undergraduate requirements in theology and not a separate, free-standing Divinity School.

“Theology has an integral part to play in the humanities and in the formation of every undergraduate student.  Theology as a discipline is formally and methodologically distinct from and is not the same animal as ‘religious studies’ or ‘study of religion’.”

Reverend Jenkins expressed to the Rover, “At the heart of any Catholic university is the dialogue between faith and reason, and theology is essential for such a dialogue.  Theology can inform other disciplines in the search for meaning, and its reflections are informed and enriched by their discoveries.  And, at its best, theology leads us all to contemplation on the mystery of God and God’s saving love.”

Crystal Avila is a sophomore communications major with minors in film and Spanish. Contact Crystal at