Curriculum review and hall-sponsored forum debate role of theology at Notre Dame

As the University of Notre Dame continues its core curriculum review, students and faculty gathered to discuss the role of theology at the university.  At both the faculty open forum on the curriculum review and the event, “The University, Theology, and the Curriculum,” prominent faculty members debated theology’s place in the ongoing review process.

On February 2, the curriculum review committee’s co-chairs—John McGreevy, Dean of the College of Arts and Letters, and Gregory Crawford, Dean of the College of Science—led faculty in a discussion of various aspects of the curriculum revision process.

McGreevy opened the forum by giving an overview of the committee’s goals, one of which is to sustain and deepen the university’s commitment to its Catholic character.  This subject fueled several comments from attending faculty members.

Jean Porter, Professor of Theology, was the first to raise concerns about the way in which the review process seems to be approaching the theology requirement.  “What concerns me is the very real possibility of losing sight of what we already do well and sacrificing or undermining that in the name of what we need to do better,” Porter said.

“You’re going to have a Catholic character at Notre Dame no matter what; it’s just too embedded in our history and our constituencies.  The question is, ‘what kind of Catholic character?’” Porter continued.  “Do we have a Catholic character of piety and sentiment, or do we have a Catholic character that puts critical thinking at the center of our identity?  That’s what our theology and philosophy requirements do for us.”

Later in the forum, Philip Bess, Professor of Architecture, spoke to the idea of Catholic character and read from a letter he had submitted to the review committee.  “The key consideration is what we mean by ‘Notre Dame’s Catholic character,’” Bess noted.

He argued that to be a Catholic university means not only providing humanitarian and service opportunities, daily Mass, and crucifixes in each classroom but also must consist in “an effort to know and serve truth, and to understand reality thoroughly as knowers, actors, and partisans, but above all as knowers, through reason, in the light of the Catholic faith.”

Bess said that such a university “is the superior example of what it means to be a Catholic university” and argued that the current core curriculum is missing “any required, unified core courses that describe the broad, but explicitly Catholic intellectual tradition, and where within that tradition the contemporary academic disciplines can and do find their proper place.”

Gary Anderson, Professor of Theology, also spoke at the forum, noting that dissatisfaction with course delivery in theology likely results from the mandatory rules enforced by the administration.  “It seems a little bit pernicious,” he said to McGreevy, “to just stand there and say that the problem with theology is that graduate students teach all these courses, but … the administration is requiring this very setup.”

A letter written by Tom Stapleford, Professor of Liberal Studies, mentioned the ill-conceived structure of the review process.  “Holding ‘town hall meetings’ is not faculty governance,” his letter read.  “Appointing some faculty members to a committee is not faculty governance. Soliciting e-mail comments is not faculty governance.  Approving curricular changes within an Academic Council in which only half the members are elected (directly or indirectly) by the faculty is not faculty governance.  Hosting a ‘Faculty Senate’ that has no power and can do virtually nothing is not faculty governance.”

Stapleford spoke with the Rover about his letter.  “[I]f you look at elite institutions that have undertaken similar curricular reviews in recent years—such as Stanford, Harvard, Chicago, and Yale—in every case the changes had to be approved either by the entire faculty or by a fully elected body,” he said.

When asked about the considerations used in discussing the purpose of theology at Notre Dame in the context of the review, McGreevy told the Rover that he could not speak to specifics as the committee is not yet ready to make any recommendations.

Anderson also spoke with the Rover about his comments at the forum, noting, “The strongest argument for the theology requirement is the unique character of the knowledge base that theology engages and so in that sense I think talking about benchmarking our requirements to our Ivy League peers is not only misleading but also grossly damaging to the place of theology.”

This conversation continued in greater depth at the February 9 debate, “The University, Theology, and the Curriculum,” between Mark Roche—the Rev. Edmund P. Joyce, CSC, Professor of German Language and Literature and Chair of the Catholic Mission Focus Group as a part of the curriculum review—and Cyril O’Regan—Catherine P. Huisking Professor of Theology.  The event was sponsored by the Notre Dame Theology Club, and residence halls including St. Edward’s, Fisher, Zahm, Lewis, Howard, Pasquerilla East, Morrissey, and Keough.

“I share the idea that vision should be the guiding force of any university,” Roche said in his opening remarks.  “Theology and philosophy are, of course, privileged in our vision, and will be central in the core, but they are not the only carriers of vision, or even of Catholic vision.”

One of Roche’s main arguments was that the university’s theology requirement could be developed and improved by having other disciplines teach courses that would count for the requirement.  After listing several learning goals for the core curriculum, Roche said, “I’m doubtful that only theology and philosophy could succeed in helping students reach these learning outcomes.  I’d like to see us draw on faculty in other fields to enhance integration.  A primary task of theology, after all, is to integrate advances in the individual disciplines, and to encourage those disciplines to ask deeper, even ultimate questions.”

Anderson told the Rover that theology has something unique to offer in this regard.  “One of the things that’s distinctive, it seems to me, about a Catholic university is the assertion that the category of revelation really matters,” Anderson said.  “I don’t think even under the best kind of circumstances if you were to move in the direction of a Catholic intellectual tradition broadly conceived and allow people—even deeply committed Catholics—in other departments to offer courses that would count for the requirement in theology, those persons, as well intentioned as they are, don’t understand their disciplines as being responsible to a body of revelation.”

In his remarks, O’Regan emphasized the import of the conversation about theology: “Despite the studied attempts at diffusion by administration, I judge the stakes regarding the current review of the curriculum to be extraordinarily high for the definition and the future of the university.”

O’Regan discussed the founding of Notre Dame, saying, “The central purpose of the university is to reproduce a determinate but non-sectarian form of faith hospitable to the best of reason and culture.”

“Whatever the enthusiasm for reform, not everything in a Core is fungible, and this applies especially to the theology courses targeted for Catholic mission,” he added.  “I think it obvious that knowing your faith and especially its basis in scripture and tradition is not the obligation of the entire university, but is rather the particular obligation of the theology department.”

According to O’Regan, the “motivating idea behind the two-course theology requirement” is that “it provides a link with the Church because theology is about a living faith grounded in the past and oriented towards the future.”

“The theory of Catholic education is ultimately theological, because Catholic education has an essential orientation to revelation, in Scripture and Tradition,” John Cavadini, Director of the Institute for Church Life and Professor of Theology, told the Rover.  “Therefore, there is no way to discuss the values and goals and identity of a Catholic education without discussing it theologically.”

Cavadini referenced Ex Corde Ecclesia, noting the section stating “Catholic Universities … are called to explore courageously the riches of Revelation and of nature so that the united endeavor of intelligence and faith will enable people to come to the full measure of their humanity” (sec. 5).

“Theology plays a particularly important role in the search for a synthesis of knowledge as well as in the dialogue between faith and reason,” Ex Corde continues.  “It serves all other disciplines in their search for meaning, not only by helping them to investigate how their discoveries will affect individuals and society but also by bringing a perspective and an orientation not contained within their own methodologies” (sec. 19).

“No other discipline is singled out in this way,” Cavadini continued, “emphasizing the unique and irreplaceable role of theology both in research and in teaching.  Without a good acquaintance with the discipline of theology as such, students cannot fully understand or appreciate the very character of the unique educational enterprise in which they are situated.”

Gerald McKenny, Professor of Theology, discussed the distinction between having theology as an enterprise of laypersons as opposed to a solely clerical effort.  “When Catholic universities require an education in theology of all their students they are making a strong statement that theology is not just a clerical enterprise but an enterprise in which laypersons participate,” McKenny said to the Rover.

“When these colleges and universities eliminate or dilute theology requirements—for example, by replacing them with a ‘Catholicism’ requirement—they are contributing to a re-clericalization of theology at a time when a theologically educated laity is vitally important to the Catholic Church,” he continued.  “A theological education gives lay Catholics a voice in their Church.  If that is not central to the Catholic mission of a leading Catholic university, what is?”

When the Rover asked about the review committee’s understanding of Notre Dame’s Catholic mission, Anderson seemed dubious.  “[M]y worries come from the way in which the theology requirement is framed by the dean and other leaders of the discussion on campus in which we are simply like all other departments … I think more important to emphasize is the uniqueness of the department, how we’re not just like the history department, we’re not just like another discipline.  We represent a unique element of a Catholic university.”

Alexandra DeSanctis is a junior studying political science and constitutional studies, and this ongoing conversation about theology has convinced her to add a theology minor.  Contact her at