Whose Gospel, What Purpose?

Father Edward Sorin has been the subject of renewed attention during this year celebrating the 175th anniversary of the founding of the University of Notre Dame by the determined Holy Cross priest and his band of brothers. The university administration has made the fulfillment of Sorin’s ‘vision’ a lynchpin of sorts in its “Boldly Notre Dame” campaign aimed at raising a mere $4 billion dollars to “embrace the opportunities of the future.” Assurances are given that the university is “following in Father Sorin’s footsteps,” and that it remains “rooted in the mission” he launched. One hears ad nauseam (and regrettably with preening satisfaction) that Notre Dame fulfills Sorin’s pledge to serve as a “powerful means for doing good.” Presumably a few billion more in the endowment will allow the school to do even more “good.”

It is hardly surprising that Father Sorin should be enlisted in the current fund-raising campaign. Most institutions apply the refrain of building upon their “storied pasts” so as to provide for a brighter future. Notre Dame could hardly resist taking up this intonation, especially given the institutional narcissism and endless self-promotion that characterizes the school at present. In the hands of the Notre Dame public relations machine Father Sorin’s ‘vision’ is enlisted to endorse virtually every contemporary venture from global gateways to the jumbotron.

Yet, the hype involved in claiming that contemporary Notre Dame is boldly fulfilling the founder’s vision needs to be challenged and corrected. Notre Dame increasingly and deliberately, it seems, evades the central component of Edward Sorin’s purpose for his school. A major course correction is needed if Notre Dame is to remain faithful to the true vision that led the young French priest to establish our school in 1842.

Anyone who takes the trouble to read Marvin O’Connell’s magisterial biography, Sorin, appreciates that Notre Dame’s founder hardly qualified as a great educational theorist or intellectual. Instead, Sorin was a practical institution builder and decisive leader whose courage and iron ensured that Notre Dame survived, despite the many crises that beset it during its formative decades. But Edward Sorin was also a priest of deep faith—a true missionary—who believed that God and Our Lady had summoned him across the Atlantic Ocean to undertake a crucial work in Catholic education.

From the outset Father Sorin hoped that Notre Dame would develop as a “most powerful means for good” by preparing young Catholics to go forth and serve well in the world. He held that Catholic education was not only about training minds but also about forming character and shaping souls. His loyalty to the Catholic Church was deep and profound, and he understood that the ultimate purpose of the school he founded was not simply to perform good works, but rather to secure the salvation of souls. He wanted to prepare good citizens for this world, and, much more importantly, for the next.

O’Connell noted that Edward Sorin was “no saint,” but, whatever his flaws, the Holy Cross priest held unflinchingly to his fundamental commitment to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The very design of his campus spoke to his commitment to have Christian faith at the very heart of his venture. Sorin’s placing of Mary atop the dome spoke to his desire that she oversee the work he undertook to win souls for her Son through His church.

For well over a century Holy Cross religious and their lay collaborators sustained Sorin’s vision at Notre Dame, and Notre Dame graduates assuredly contributed well in the world with the benefit of the Catholic education they received here. Recently, however, Sorin’s vision has been increasingly pushed aside. Rather than winning souls for Christ, Notre Dame has given priority to its own aggrandizement. It has been on a quest for success understood in primarily secular terms in which, with depressing frequency, image is chosen over substance, ratings are chosen over principles, and, ultimately, a false prestige is chosen over truth.

Notre Dame is now a school in the process of losing its true bearings by shunting aside the Catholic moral compass. Of course it wants to retain its Catholic gloss, but it seems only as much as necessary for fundraising and marketing purposes. The reigning ethos and approach emanating from its administration tends to be a very tepid and shallow progressive Catholicism. The prevailing tendency is always to accommodate to the dominant culture of the American academy and society and, sometimes obsequiously so in order to obtain its approval. Notre Dame advertises all the “good” it does in the world through its series of “What Would You Fight For” television ads, but this is largely virtue signaling to a secular audience. The university backs away from any serious public demonstration of its commitment to Catholic teachings that might offend the academic and media elites.

This sad tendency has been on recent display with the university’s complicity in the provision of contraceptives and abortifacients by its health insurance contractors, although it is now under no legal obligation to do so. No wonder NARAL-Pro-Choice America took pleasure in the university’s action. Notre Dame’s decision sends a definite message to its students as to the university’s casual dismissal of Catholic teaching on human sexuality and respect for human life. It undercut the very legal arguments the university had made in contesting the Obamacare mandate. It only confirmed that if one wants boldness and courage in upholding Catholic teaching one needs to look away from Notre Dame to the Little Sisters of the Poor.

Behind such actions as the contraceptive decision lies the deeper reality that Notre Dame operates increasingly as a corporate enterprise primarily concerned for enhancing its reputation and ‘brand’ among the other corporate research universities that dominate American higher education. While those who guide Notre Dame would smugly disparage the likes of Pastor Joel Osteen and his “prosperity gospel,” the university increasingly succumbs to its own variation of the ‘Gospel of Wealth and Success.’ There is a conceited sense that Notre Dame has won God’s favor by its fundraising success and, in light of such ‘success,’ faculty and staff are expected to comply meekly and to sing from the gospel of wealth song-sheet. (This compliance also is assuredly expected of the members of the Holy Cross Order who serve at Notre Dame.) Criticism of the university is discouraged in ways both subtle and not-so-subtle with the effective use of carrots and sticks. Increasingly faculty either get caught in the web of the gospel of wealth or they simply detach themselves from caring about the broad direction of the university. “Why bother?” is the refrain of some colleagues.

Given all the attention paid at Notre Dame to money and buildings and the associated consumerist excess and material indulgence, it is worth asking if the university Edward Sorin founded has been turned into a place where its denizens are immunized against hearing the true Gospel message with its strictures regarding the proper use of wealth. Has Notre Dame turned away from the Lady atop the dome to instead pay tribute to modern versions of the “golden calf?” And, in the process, has it lost the traditional sense of community and its moral purpose that were once the special blessings of the university?

Edward Sorin was a believer in the Lordship of Jesus Christ and he saw the Virgin Mary as always pointing the way to Him. Whatever his limited understanding of a genuine university, Sorin grasped that the one he founded must not simply accommodate to or conform with the world around it. Rather he believed that it must train young Catholics to be leaven in and for the world. Today so many Notre Dame students are shortchanged in such formation. While it is still possible to obtain a rich Catholic education at the university, far too many of our students leave the campus subscribing to what Christian Smith called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” They want to be nice and tolerant, but they are neither motivated by the call of the Gospel of Jesus Christ nor committed to live in accord with the teachings of His Church. Not surprisingly, many simply absorb the lukewarm, ‘beige’ Catholicism that characterizes the institution, and they drift along in the world content to take their place in the proverbial one percent. The failure of Notre Dame to provide a coherent and integrated Catholic core curriculum for all its students only confirms how it neglects to equip them spiritually and intellectually to challenge and transform the utilitarian and materialist culture of our new gilded age.

In his The Diary of a Country Priest, Georges Bernanos has a character say: “Faith is not a thing one ‘loses,’ we merely cease to shape our lives by it.” The sentiment certainly applies to institutions as well, and Notre Dame has drifted far from the profound faith of its founder in its search for power, wealth and prestige. Yet, the occasion of the 175th anniversary of its humble beginnings provides the university with an opportunity to refocus on its authentic mission as a university that “draws it basic inspiration from Jesus Christ.” Instead of manipulating the memory of Sorin as a fundraising device the Notre Dame community should revisit how effectively it meets the mission he set for the school. Sorin understood the meaning of the Lord’s injunction: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul.”  It would be a demonstration of real boldness—one worthy of the young priest who set off from France to save souls in the new world—if Notre Dame would pose that question anew, and clarify that its central purpose is to shape true disciples of Jesus Christ who are willing to serve God and neighbor. A worthy tribute to Edward Sorin would be a robust reaffirmation that Notre Dame is a distinct place that cares deeply not only for the minds of its students, but also for their hearts and souls.

Fr. Bill Miscamble, CSC, teaches in the Department of History and is a member of the Irish Rover’s faculty advisory board.