Appointment as guest lecturer affirms Catholic identity and academic freedom

Next fall, Our Lady’s University will welcome former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Paul Ryan to campus as a guest lecturer in political science and economics. He joins former White House chief of staff Denis McDonough and former U.S. senator Joe Donnelly as the most recent in an impressive lineup of professor-of-the-practice appointments.

Mr. Ryan served in the House for 20 years and joined Mitt Romney to run for executive office in 2012. He headed the influential House Ways and Means Committee and served as Speaker of the House for four years. As far as qualifications for his new position, by experience alone, Mr. Ryan is an excellent hire for Notre Dame.

That’s not to say Notre Dame should hire every experienced and high-ranking politician. Certainly not. Just think of the can of worms that would open. Here are the questions to consider: what does the appointment mean for Notre Dame’s Catholic identity and the relationship between Notre Dame and an increasingly secularized nation?

The appointment is good news for both. Mr. Ryan brings a unique and increasingly rare experience to his position, and thus, to students in the classroom. He lived his faith in public office. He didn’t do it perfectly, but no one can. He didn’t do all that he wished, but no one can.

But he was a politician willing to dissent from the progressive orthodoxy that tremendous social, political, and financial pressure have coerced many Catholics to adopt, or at least, willingly accept as the status quo.

Let’s go right to the most obvious issue: abortion.  Ryan says, “I support the rights of the unborn child. Personally, I believe that life begins at conception, and it is for that reason that I feel we need to protect that life as we would protect other children.” Why? And what does it have to do with his faith? Ryan articulates, “I don’t see how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith. Our faith informs us in everything we do. My faith informs me about how to take care of the vulnerable, about how to make sure that people have a chance in life.”

The president of NARAL, one of the most powerful abortion lobbying groups, reported, “Rep. Ryan has cast 59 votes on reproductive rights while in Congress and not one has been pro-choice.” But when “choice” involves the intentional taking of an innocent human life, Catholics like Ryan, who see each person in the image of God and who understand that life is a precious gift shouldn’t have too much difficulty with their position on the matter.

Ryan is a courageous man in this regard.

And yet, because he wasn’t perfect, because he was in a difficult position as a leader in the Republican Party when it became Trump’s party, and definitely because he is conservative, Ryan’s appointment is not a welcome development for some here on campus.

The Observer published an opinion article on the recent appointment titled, “Paul Ryan: now your new favorite Notre Dame lecturer.” It’s an unserious hit piece that misrepresents just about everything. It claims, for example, that “If our University truly stands for ‘Catholic principles, robust debates, academic freedoms and diverse viewpoints,’ Ryan would never have been considered for this position.”

I cannot go into all of the issues that could be raised with the Observer piece, and it’s not even worth doing so. Perhaps most interesting for this discussion is the piece’s mistaken understanding of academic freedom.

Academic freedom is a bit of an uneasy concept, at least on its face, for a Catholic school.  Such schools are openly committed to certain dogmatic beliefs. (Secular institutions today are equally, though not openly, committed to dogmatic beliefs, but more on that later.) There’s no way to question them. But that’s because reason has no claim to these beliefs. How could human reason ever fully explain the Resurrection we are celebrating this Easter?

Notre Dame’s role––and the highest purpose of academic freedom––is to explore, articulate and defend the unity of faith and reason. That’s why Notre Dame is “dedicated to the pursuit and sharing of truth for its own sake,” and, in accord with that mission, “insists upon academic freedom that makes open discussion and inquiry possible.”

Academic freedom is not easy to defend or practice. It’s easier to say that freedom is for me, but not for thee. Under the guise of not “trusting” Mr. Ryan “in a classroom at Notre Dame” to “teach a course on anything,” the author of the Observer piece manages to say exactly that. Statements like this lead to intolerant practices that are destructive to the purpose of a university.

It’s ironic that the most secular schools are becoming the least tolerant places. Last week, the administration at Middlebury College––because apparently they hadn’t had enough of looking foolish––cancelled a lecture that was supposed to be delivered by Ryszard Legutko, a conservative Polish philosopher. Legutko’s most recent work has focused on the totalitarian temptation that can, given the right circumstances, easily arise from within and come to dominate liberal democracies.

The mission statement of Notre Dame and its actual practice stand in admirable contrast to this kind of intolerance.  Paul Ryan’s appointment affirms both Notre Dame’ Catholic character and its commitment to academic freedom.  May this university continue to cultivate an environment which supports the pursuit of truth.

Nick Marr is a junior from San Diego, CA. He studies history and political theory. As a 10 year old, he argued with a Supreme Court justice about who was a bigger Notre Dame fan.  It was neither his first nor his last argument. You can reach him at