The Catholic Ideal and Action: A United Mission



Coming back to campus never gets old. For me, driving down Notre Dame Avenue and seeing the Dome rise up before me especially brings heartfelt joy every time I return.

I remember those first few weeks of freshman year, when I was still getting used to the layout of campus. It is nice to know that I have gone from wandering around with the ND Mobile App campus map to confidently giving directions to visitors during football weekends. On several occasions, those who have asked me where the Visitors Center or Grotto are also remark how much campus has changed over the years. And it is true: the plethora of more recent buildings has transformed the Notre Dame landscape, and the series of active construction sites continues to do so. As I watch projects like Jenkins and Nanovic Halls near DPAC and Campus Crossroads take shape, I wonder how they reflect the Notre Dame mission.

I ask this question not just regarding how we spend money, though of course that is an important aspect of how an institution lives out its mission. Beyond budget, however, when it comes to campus buildings, their structures, functions, and contributions to campus life also testify to how—and to what end—the university thrives.

The Notre Dame Mission Statement serves as an appropriate roadmap to evaluate these kinds of endeavors. In the first paragraph, the mission declares, “The University is dedicated to the pursuit and sharing of truth for its own sake. As a Catholic university, one of its distinctive goals is to provide a forum where, through free inquiry and open discussion, the various lines of Catholic thought may intersect with all the forms of knowledge…” From this excerpt, two important ideals stand out: commitment to truth and the integration of Catholicism and all disciplines. As practical consequences, then, a Catholic university should seek excellence in all fields (because each contains truth) and also look to the Church’s wisdom as a guide to pursuing truth in those fields.

Consider one example. The Departments of Psychology and Anthropology will soon have a new home in Corbett Family Hall, a branch of Campus Crossroads. According to the university’s mission, where does the motivation of this decision come from? These fields seek to understand truths about human beings—in this case, about how they function and relate with one another. As honorable fields of study, they deserve excellent resources and facilities. The same logic follows for the sciences, performing arts, and business—each field seeks to pursue truth and improve the human condition in some way, and each should consequently be encouraged and supported.

But what distinguishes—or at least should distinguish—the Catholic university’s academic and professional endeavors? Here is where the union between various subjects and a distinctly Catholic mission comes into play.

At a Catholic institution, it is not that every class should involve Church documents or other expressly religious material. Academic freedom is a real and important value. However, with that freedom comes the responsibility of advancing the Church’s mission: to guide men and women toward virtue and, in effect, eternal happiness. Every action, from academic to financial to aesthetic, should support that goal.

Pope Saint John Paul II emphasizes this mission in Ex Corde Ecclesiae. Quoting a 1972 conference, he writes, “[I]t is evident that besides the teaching, research, and services common to all Universities, a Catholic University, by institutional commitment, brings to its task the inspiration and light of the Christian message. In a Catholic University, therefore, Catholic ideals, attitudes and principles penetrate and inform university activities in accordance with the proper nature and autonomy of these activities. In a word, being both a University and Catholic, it must be both a community of scholars representing various branches of human knowledge, and an academic institution in which Catholicism is vitally present and operative.”

The union the pope describes between scholarship and Christian mission is an essential one. It signifies that “Catholic” should not be a mere adjective added onto professional work. Reducing it to such a level cuts off the opportunity for a deeper transformation that comes with uniting the identity “Catholic” to an entity. If we allow the superficial adjective to predominate, the anchor of purpose and mission will become disconnected, and university actions—including spectacular construction projects—become, at best, unnecessary decorations.

That does not mean that such projects are never worthwhile. Fully living up to John Paul II’s call means pursuing upright excellence in all its dimensions, while fostering an inseparable and ennobling commitment to Catholic ideals. And what are those ideals? They include commitment to human dignity, health on all levels, justice and equality, freedom of conscience, and charity united with truth. The beauty is that, as the Notre Dame Mission Statement and Church teaching indicate, all realms of knowledge can and must endorse those ideals.

Unity of mission is what must drive any major or minor project that the university undertakes. New facilities must be planned and executed not just to bejewel a prime research university that happens to be Catholic; they must fundamentally seek to propel the Church’s mission forward.

I do not intend to pass judgment on whether or not the university’s construction projects reflect this goal, though it is an important point of debate. What I will now propose, however, is that the same united outlook that must ground the actions of a Catholic university must also ground individual persons.

Our lives are bound by a single purpose: to know, love, and serve God. Therefore, our every activity must advance that cause. Once again, that does not mean that we need refer to religious texts for every decision we make, but it does mean that everything—the work we do, the friendships we build, and the political choices we make—can and should be informed by the Christian identity and mission. We cannot compartmentalize our lives; otherwise, no part of our lives will have centralized meaning.

Even for non-Christians, the human experience demands a certain unity for peace and happiness, and one must decide upon a fundamental purpose to provide that unity. In Christianity, and particularly in Catholicism, we find the fullness of purpose to make life consistent, honest, and joyful.

Sophia Buono is a junior PLS major and ESS minor. She thoroughly enjoyed fall break, during which she made the adventurous decision of taking a 10-hour bus ride so that she could spend extra time sleeping and enjoying family. Contact Sophia at sbuono@nd.edu.

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