Sorin’s ‘Bold’ Vision and the Future of Notre Dame

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.

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  • Jack

    Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ hangs her head in humiliation knowing that she forever stands on the golden dome of the flagship of Catholic universities which now is accepting of those means that have to do with the murder of unborn children. Shame on John Jenkins and his administration. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/97192ca381bbb1d4030fd747fcd481e5e8c1f4889116b898cc53a42ef4bc072a.jpg

  • NDaniels

    “Faith is not a thing one ‘loses,’ we merely cease to shape our lives by it.”

    (This compliance also is assuredly expected of the members of the Holy Cross Order who serve at Notre Dame.)

    To cease to shape our lives by our Catholic Faith is to lose our Faith.

    “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.”

    I will Pray for a robust reaffirmation from The Holy Cross Order.

  • Anne Hendershott

    A courageous article by a courageous priest. Thank you for speaking the truth – I know how difficult it must be. ND has lost its way and students will continue to suffer but they truly have a blessing in the inspiring work of Fr. Miscamble.

  • Judy Watson

    When they took Our Lady and the Dome off The Shirt, I said it was a visible reminder of how the university had put their Catholic identity on the shelf in favor of the golden calf of football and wealth. What appeard to many as a little thing was not so little to me. It spokes volumes. Every year since, ND has continued to disappoint us, in bigger and bigger ways. We love the ND founded by Fr. Sorin. Sadly, it doesn’t exist today.

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  • Woody

    Well said, Father. However, your article will fall on deaf ears of those in charge. Notre Dame lost its Catholicism when Fr. Hesburgh made his pact with the devil of research money. Notre Dame will continue to prosper financially because it is of the world, in contradiction to Our Lord’s commands.

  • JTLiuzza

    “Notre Dame is now a school in the process of losing its true bearings by shunting aside the Catholic moral compass.”

    Thank you for your article, Father. I would humbly submit that that disgraceful university is no longer “in the process” of losing it’s true bearings. Denouncing the Land O Lakes statement and their role in it would be a necessary first step. Until then, I just wish they would stop defiling our Mother and simply call themselves U of Indiana-South Bend or some such.

  • NDaniels

    It is about the marriage in Heaven and on earth.
    One cannot condone the engaging in or affirmation of sexual acts outside the marital act, without discriminating against the Sanctity of the marital act, which is a rightly ordered desire/inclination/orientation within the marital relationship.

  • Pueblo Southwest

    I seem to recall that that those who do not know the wrong have no sin but those that do will have to account for it. I would imagine that someone in a high position at Notre Dame would do well to meditate on that.

  • Mongo

    “Notre Dame University – Prestige over Truth?”

    Yes. Of course. Standard for the preponderance of ‘Catholic’ universities.

    • baralty

      Who said “Prestige over Truth”? It is true but I heard it before

  • NDaniels

    “The Chief Rabbi of France, Gilles Bernheim, has shown in a very detailed and profoundly moving study that the attack we are currently experiencing on the true structure of the family, made up of father, mother, and child, goes much deeper. While up to now we regarded a false understanding of the nature of human freedom as one cause of the crisis of the family, it is now becoming clear that the very notion of being – of what being human really means – is being called into question. He quotes the famous saying of Simone de Beauvoir: “one is not born a woman, one becomes so” (on ne naît pas femme, on le devient). These words lay the foundation for what is put forward today under the term “gender” as a new philosophy of sexuality. According to this philosophy, sex is no longer a given element of nature, that man has to accept and personally make sense of: it is a social role that we choose for ourselves, while in the past it was chosen for us by society. The profound falsehood of this theory and of the anthropological revolution contained within it is obvious. People dispute the idea that they have a nature, given by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being. They deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves. According to the biblical creation account, being created by God as male and female pertains to the essence of the human creature. This duality is an essential aspect of what being human is all about, as ordained by God. This very duality as something previously given is what is now disputed. The words of the creation account: “male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27) no longer apply. No, what applies now is this: it was not God who created them male and female – hitherto society did this, now we decide for ourselves. Man and woman as created realities, as the nature of the human being, no longer exist. Man calls his nature into question. From now on he is merely spirit and will. The manipulation of nature, which we deplore today where our environment is concerned, now becomes man’s fundamental choice where he himself is concerned. From now on there is only the abstract human being, who chooses for himself what his nature is to be. Man and woman in their created state as complementary versions of what it means to be human are disputed. But if there is no pre-ordained duality of man and woman in creation, then neither is the family any longer a reality established by creation. Likewise, the child has lost the place he had occupied hitherto and the dignity pertaining to him. Bernheim shows that now, perforce, from being a subject of rights, the child has become an object to which people have a right and which they have a right to obtain. When the freedom to be creative becomes the freedom to create oneself, then necessarily the Maker himself is denied and ultimately man too is stripped of his dignity as a creature of God, as the image of God at the core of his being. The defence of the family is about man himself. And it becomes clear that when God is denied, human dignity also disappears. Whoever defends God is defending man.” – Pope Benedict XVI Christmas Address 2012

  • Brian W

    A solid start would be the repudiation of the Land of L(mist)akes declaration.

  • JTLiuzza

    Well done, Father.

    Step one: Fire Fr. Jenkins and send him to a long retreat where he can reflect and pray.
    Step two: Immediately get rid of the contraception/abortifacient evil.
    Step three: Publicly denounce the Land-O-Lakes statement and Notre Dame’s role in it.
    Step four: Publicly embrace Ex Corde Ecclisiae and publish a detailed plan to implement it fully and faithfully at Notre Dame.

    There are many other things that could be added to the list. These four would be a good place to start.

  • jacobum

    Great article Father. It’s well known that the gleam of the Golden Dome has long since been tarnished and trashed. ND defines “CINO” to the core. They prove the axiom. ” If you want your kids to loose the Catholic Faith…Send them to Notre Dame”…….at $65M/year. Satan has a great sense of humor NOT. They are no more Catholic than the National Catholic Reporter fish wrap.

  • tony2581

    I appreciate the author’s passionate article although I disagree with most of it. I graduated from Notre Dame 45 years ago, and I can assure the good Father that of the many Notre Dame students i knew, very few were “motivated by the call of the Gospel of Jesus Christ or
    committed to live in accord with the teachings of His Church”. Therefore, if the author thinks that Notre Dame used to be a holy place – and that it has just recently lost its way – he is sadly mistaken. Further, it is an insult to Notre Dame and its students (as well as extremely arrogant, which is not a trait of Our Mother on the Golden Dome) to claim that ND grads “drift along in the world content
    to take their place in the proverbial one percent”. First of all, although I’m sure that some ND grads have become part of the 1%, I certainly don’t know of any. Second, most of my ND friends have lived admirable, purpose-driven lives, albeit perhaps not of the right-wing conservative type that the author embraces.

    • JTLiuzza

      “albeit perhaps not of the right-wing conservative type that the author embraces.”

      And there it is. It all comes down to us versus them secular, leftist politics for you. You prove Father’s point.

    • Deplorable One

      Fools and old fools. You, Sir, are the latter. Damn. Back under the bridge, Mr. Troll.

    • ND

      Although it is true that there may be some ND grads who drift along the world content to take their place in the proverbial one percent, your statement that one can live an admirable, purpose-driven life, and not be “motivated by the call of the Gospel of Jesus Christ or
      committed to live in accord with the teachings of His Church”, and your correlation of a life “motivated by the call of the Gospel of Jesus Christ or
      committed to live in accord with the teachings of His Church”, with “the right-wing conservative type that the author embraces”, that concludes with your statement that, you claim “Further, it is an insult to Notre Dame and its students (as well as extremely arrogant, which is not a trait of Our Mother on the Golden Dome), drifts from denying our Catholic Faith, to identifying our Catholic Faith as merely “right-wing conservative”, to affirming Our Mother On The Golden Dome, Who As Mirror of Justice, Reflects God’s Love, motivating us to “live our lives in accord with the teachings of His Church”, Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, thus affirming The Call of The Gospel of Jesus Christ.
      In essence, your stumbling block seems to be, your failing to recognize that living our lives in accord with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and in accord with the teachings of His Church, dos not depend on whether one is rich or poor, male or female, married, or single… it depends solely on being Faithful.

      A rose by any other name, is in essence, still a rose, yet you equate being Faithful to being “a right wing conservative”. I will assume that you either do not understand the essence of faithfulness, and/or you do not understand the essence of “right wing conservative’.

      Being Faithful is not a matter of degree; The Line Drawn In The Sand separates those who are with Him, from those who are against Him.

  • James

    A stunning exhibition of fortitude.
    This lens could easily be brought to the entire post-conciliar ecclesial debacle — and doubtlessly to the Bergoglian pontificate.
    But who learns from history?

  • DomineNonSumDignus

    Very well put, Father.

  • Deplorable One

    Nailed it. Wow. Great stuff, Father. Thank you; very well said!

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    My heart is heavy – I loved the Notre Dame I attended (’87). I’m sure much might have been wrong with it then but it felt mystical to me, and the sense of spirituality, the tender and yet unapologetic Catholic Christianity that pervaded the very air I thought, well it made my heart swell. All things are a pendulum, but I hate to see this Camelot of my heart go down.
    The first sign to me that something was off was when Obama received an honorary degree in Law, when he spoke at a graduation just after his election. This rankled because during his short tenure with the Illinois legislature, the only legislation Barack Obama not only backed by spoke about was to deny and try to block any rights to those Born Alive after a failed abortion. Otherwise his short time was boring.
    The second flag is when I heard rumors that Right to Life groups were no longer welcome on campus.
    Issues of the unborn are not the only issues in the world, obviously, as those who want to preach about the “seamless garment” will tell you. Ad nauseam. But in this day and age, the unborn are the canaries in the coal mine.
    And now the university is providing birth control and abortifacients, although they haven’t even been asked or ordered to such action. (I must admit that I didn’t much like the rules from the 80s which dictated that if a student were pregnant they had to leave school.) However this is a smack in the face of our faith.
    David Green of Hobby Lobby was willing to see his life’s work destroyed because he would not recant his faith. And for years he silently lost revenue by refusing to have his store open on Sundays.
    I really, really, really wish that the United States Bishops or the Pope would strip the modern Notre Dame of its Catholic status. I would hate it but as it is, the university is guilty of the sin of Scandal. As a university with so many young people, this is not to be taken lightly.