“What dorm are you from?” is the second of three questions any Notre Dame student asks upon meeting another Domer. With many people living in the same dorm, if not the same section, for three years, dorm life is a defining characteristic of the Notre Dame experience. People feel that they belong to a family. The sense of community so carefully cultivated extends even beyond graduation: alumni are drawn back to their old dorms, waking current residents from their sleep to look around their old rooms.
Notre Dame’s mission statement sets forth the goal of a holistic education: “The University prides itself on being an environment of teaching and learning that fosters the development in its students of those disciplined habits of mind, body, and spirit …”
While the mind, body, and spirit may be partially formed in the classroom, the dorm also plays a crucial role in the overall education of any student at Notre Dame. To fulfill this goal, the dorms haveto become places of formation and growth, not simply places to live.
The mission statement continues: “The University encourages a way of living consonant with a Christian community and manifest in prayer, liturgy and service. Residential life endeavors to develop that sense of community and of responsibility that prepares students for subsequent leadership in building a society that is at once more human and more divine.”
The end goal, therefore, is to form men and women who embrace their humanity with the goal of using their gifts to bring about a fruitful society. Do the dorms accomplish this goal?
I would argue that they do not.
A blatant—but often ignored—problem presents itself on most Friday and Saturday nights: Yes, the drinking culture at Notre Dame isa problem.
Du Lac has clearly defined rules regarding alcohol use, and while many dorms claim to follow du Lac, it would not take long for any reasonable person to notice that these policies are not being followed. But it is useless to urge people to follow the rules if the underlying rationale is not understood. Why does the university set forth restrictions on intoxication, abusive drinking, hard alcohol, kegs, and drinking games?
Simply put, according to the Catholic teaching under which this university exists, drunkenness is a mortal sin. The college student puts his or her eternal salvation at risk by partaking in drunkenness. One simply has to look at the greatest theologians of the Catholic tradition to find this same conclusion.
St. Paul writes in the Letter to the Galatians, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you would … Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity … drunkenness” (5:16-21).
In Question 150, Article 2 of the Summa Theologiae St. Thomas Aquinas also argues that drunkenness is a mortal sin: “In this way drunkenness is a mortal sin, because then a man willingly and knowingly deprives himself of the use of reason, whereby he performs virtuous deeds and avoids sin, and thus he sins mortally by running the risk of falling into sin … To take more meat or drink than is necessary belongs to the vice of gluttony, which is not always a mortal sin: but knowingly to take too much drink to the point of being drunk, is a mortal sin.”
Even if one is not Catholic, it is clear that drunkenness denies a person the use of the very faculty that makes him or her human: reason. By reason, man can determine what his good is, which is ultimately what each person must try to attain.
Unfortunately, many people do not know and do not wish to discover the truth about the evil of drunkenness. It is viewed simply as part of college life that is meant to be enjoyed. The situation at Notre Dame is, of course, better than other universities, so many would say it must be the case that we are acting properly. Not so. Being drunk is as wrong on this campus as it is on another.
Why, then, do many dorms allow the habituation of wrong acts, also known as vice? Are these dorms not supposed to be bastions of character formation and virtue? Does the mission statement not include the development of “disciplined habits”—virtues—as an essential part of an education?
Interestingly, a part of the document “Beloved Friends and Allies,” which pertains to chastity and sexuality, can be relevant to the problem of drunkenness:
“Lives of self‐giving love are not possible without ‘the long and exacting work of self‐mastery’ (CCC, 2342), the self‐mastery that is ‘ordered to the gift of self in witness to God’s fidelity and loving kindness’ (CCC, 2346). The University in its mission statement also references this self‐mastery when it states that it ‘prides itself on being an environment of teaching and learning that fosters the development in its students of those disciplined habits of mind, body, and spirit that characterize educated, skilled, and free human beings.’ All must learn to govern their passions in disciplined ways on the road to lasting freedom.”
Another name for ‘self-mastery’ is temperance, a cardinal virtue. Using temperance, we can subject our passions to reason so as not to be led astray. There is nothing more compelling than instantly satisfying all of one’s immediate desires: hunger, thirst, a buzz, sexual pleasure. But by practicing temperance, we avoid becoming controlled by our desires, flitting from satisfaction to satisfaction without order or reason. This virtue is critical in avoiding drunkenness. The ‘fun’ and ‘freedom’ come at the heavy cost of saying ‘no’ to reason, one key faculty that distinguishes us from our pets.
And without temperance, many other sickening consequences come as well. Sexual assault is highly condemned—and rightly so. The hookup culture persists, degrading women and men alike and debasing the marriage ideal. What is at the core of these problems?
A common human desire is for sexual pleasure, one that must be subjected to reason if any semblance of respect for human dignity is to be had. Temperance of course does this.
These issues of drunkenness and sexual assault, therefore, can be solved—perhaps not easily—by teaching Notre Dame students temperance and the virtues in general. How are we to be ready to be leaders “in building a society that is at once more human and more divine”? Could there be a better place to inculcate the virtues than in the dorms?
The immediate conclusion would seem to be to have hall staffs strictly enforce du Lac‘s alcohol policy. This, however, would be an extremely difficult task, one that might cause more harm than good. If dorm parties were simply ended, people would go off campus. A dorm might try programming hall events for weekend evenings, but no one would come. If everyone who walked in and out of the dorms visibly intoxicated was stopped, the communication between the hall staff and residents would fall apart. There would be no trust or open spaces to talk about real problems.
Even more complicated is the sense of community that is formed with some basis in drinking. It is one thing to drink moderately (one or two beers) at a social event with friends. It is an entirely different matter to intentionally get drunk no matter the circumstances. For instance, many male dorms have Dis-Orientation, a day on which freshmen are brought into the community of the section through events that involve heavy, although non-mandatory, drinking. While this day does, indeed, bring about a very strong community, part of it is built on sin and vice, a sadly unrealized fact.
This, then, is a complicated mess, but one which we should never tire in trying to fix. Perhaps dorms should slowly begin to enforce more rules. The key component to all of this, however, is having a hall staff that agrees with the rationale behind the alcohol policy and that actively lives it. The hall staff must also live personalism in order to make real relationships with the people in their sections. Conversion and conversation only happen on a very personal level.
St. Thomas Aquinas quotes St. Augustine in the aforementioned question, a quote that captures the best approach to solving this problem at Notre Dame.
“Sometimes the correction of a sinner is to be foregone, as stated above. Hence Augustine says in a letter, ‘Meseems, such things are cured not by bitterness, severity, harshness, but by teaching rather than commanding, by advice rather than threats. Such is the course to be followed with the majority of sinners: few are they whose sins should be treated with severity.’”
The hall staff—and all students who take their faith seriously—should, therefore, live an exemplary life and enter into meaningful relationships with love so as to bring others closer to the truth. This will be a long uphill struggle, but with right intention and strength of will, changes pleasing to Our Lady can happen.
John VanBerkum is a junior studying philosophy. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.