The role of the Catholic university in the search for truth
Pondering Notre Dame’s Mission Statement
In the new era of “fake news” and partial truths, a certain part of Notre Dame’s mission statement is often quoted by faculty and students alike: “the University is dedicated to the pursuit and sharing of truth for its own sake.” One of the recent “What Would You Fight For?” videos promoted a Notre Dame professor whose computer engineering algorithms were helping to reduce the spread of misinformation on social media sites such as Reddit.
Notre Dame touts itself as a bearer of truth in an age where candor is lacking in many social, political, and economic situations.
Seemingly less understood is what the University’s pursuit of truth is actually grounded in or what the phrasing means. Notre Dame’s mission statement spans seven paragraphs, and that common quote is drawn from only the second sentence. Digging deeper into the University’s purported identity reveals what it really means to be a Catholic university. For, as is written in the mission statement, “Notre Dame’s character as a Catholic academic community presupposes that no genuine search for the truth in the human or the cosmic order is alien to the life of faith.”
In a quick Google search of elite educational institutions, the majority of them state something regarding a search for truth. It is only at the Catholic university, though, that the “genuine” search is constructed. A life of faith and genuine truth are deeply intertwined in Notre Dame’s mission statement and our daily lives, as we go about respecting parietals and attending dorm mass. Such small things in the life of faith have greater meaning in the role of a Catholic University.
In order to search for truth, a person must turn outward and engage actively within the academic community. As Notre Dame’s mission statement puts it, “open forums” for all viewpoints allow the best ideas to surface and to be prodded and questioned until made better. Grounding the public forum in a life of faith allows participants to respect each other to a higher degree in those sort of meaningful conversations. The teachings of the Catholic Church state that all men and women are brothers and sisters in Christ. A conversation between brothers and sisters, rather than strangers, is inevitably going to be more genuine and candid.
A great example of this is the recent conversation on America’s role in the world between Condoleezza Rice and John Kerry, hosted by BridgeND and the Common Ground forum. The search for common ground between democrats and republicans was civil, courteous, and kind last Tuesday night. The setting, I’m sure, played a role in that.
As a Catholic University, Notre Dame has the imperative to try to build the community Christ imagined not only in our lives of faith but in academic circles as well. This is where a search for truth can become genuine, because no truth that is arrived at by stifling and disrespecting others will be sincere and genuine—it will not be truth at all. Thus, while most universities’ role is to look for the truth, the Catholic university has a much greater role to forge authentic and respectful communities within modern life.
This life of faith Notre Dame creates is demonstrated in its honest attempt to guide students and faculty alike into the family of Notre Dame. The Notre Dame family mirrors (and ultimately forms) the body of Christ. The modern Catholic university does this by requiring many things that are seemingly disconnected and trivial but which ultimately serve to shape a person’s morals. The honor code Notre Dame abides by, the respect that is taught within the parietals of Du Lac, the community that is formed within same-sex dorms, and even the gentle reminders to look up on campus (to God in the Basilica, to Jesus on the Library, to Mary on the Dome) all are apart of Notre Dame’s crucial foundation in a life of faith.
The faith life goes beyond creating a more respectful community. Not only does the search for truth revolve around a turn outward to those who surround us, but it requires the student to ponder questions involving much more than the present time. In order to genuinely search for truth, a person cannot only focus on the here and now. Notre Dame’s presupposition that to be genuine, truth must be grounded in a life of faith, is a strong reminder to academics to look not only to the future but even to the enlightened end of humanity and to questions of the after-life.
The modern Catholic university is the standard-bearer of truth in the era of prevalent distrust, secularism, and relativism because of the life of faith in which it is grounded. Notre Dame’s mission statement encompasses this, and that is why in a particularly divisive time, Notre Dame stands apart in politics as a place of respect, love, and truth.
Claire Marie Kuhn is a senior majoring in political science with a minor in Peace Studies. She enjoys long afternoon naps and iced green tea lattes. To talk with her over one of those lattes, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.