The Rover’s call to protect the university’s mission

It is easy to be pessimistic about the present state and foreseeable future of higher education, particularly at Catholic institutions. Corrosive tendencies within academia generally, and in Catholic education specifically, easily support and perhaps even justify this pessimism.

However, I don’t think that pessimism is the right attitude to have about Notre Dame. On the contrary, as we begin another year of the Rover, reflecting on the present state of Notre Dame as a Catholic university—both as Catholic, and as a university—reveals plenty of cause for hope, and serves as a reminder about the role the Rover can play at Our Lady’s university. 

Now, in saying that there is cause for hope, I do not mean to suggest that all is perfectly well at Notre Dame. The very fact that the Rover exists implies that there are problems at Notre Dame which threaten its very core – its Catholic identity. In an ideal world, it should not be necessary for students to worry about upholding the commitments in which the university is most fundamentally grounded, and to spend time trying to ensure that the university is providing them with the education they need. Alas, the world is not ideal, and a need for the Rover persists.

But by the same token, the very fact that the Rover exists reveals that there still are things at Notre Dame worth fighting for, and people willing to join those battles. That there are problems to protect against necessitates that there are goods worth protecting. At many other historically Catholic universities, a group like the Rover would be futile because all that may have at one point been worth protecting has virtually ceased to exist, having fallen prey to the secularist-progressive orthodoxy dominating higher education. 

A broad coalition of hyper-secular intellectual and cultural movements, this wave best characterizes the most prominent developments (if one may call deterioration a development) in university education and is at the center of what the Rover seeks to combat. It is worth considering the ways in which this trend has impacted the Notre Dame, while highlighting the fact that, in contrast to comparable institutions, there has been a significant positive response to it from within the university, giving us plenty of reason for optimism.

First, let’s consider how Notre Dame, strictly as a university, has fared against the tendencies which have corroded the intellectual culture at most universities. The most prominent threats to university education broadly revolve around the issues of intellectual homogeneity and academic freedom.

With regards to the first, it is no secret that the vast majority of academics, particularly at elite institutions, are socially and politically progressive. In fact, it is increasingly difficult to find a conservative professor at most universities of high repute. This intellectual homogeneity is also vividly present within the student bodies of elite institutions, despite strong institutional efforts to increase racial diversity on campus.

At Notre Dame, while the majority of the professoriate likely leans left, it is not difficult to find a conservative perspective. One only need to look at the growing success of the Tocqueville Program, the influence of the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture, and the prominence of professors such as those who comprise the Rover’s board of faculty advisors to see that there is a significant and respected conservative presence on campus. 

A natural effect of the increased intellectual homogeneity within higher education has been a sharp decline in intellectual tolerance. Room for dissent from the predominant opinion has virtually ceased to exist on many campuses. Any illusion that such room still exists is crushed by the frequent violent protests against conservative speakers, which at this point are too many to count. Notre Dame, though not exactly exempt from the effects of such intolerance, remains by and large a university with real and genuine academic freedom. On any given week, one could attend lectures on topics ranging from the inherent dignity of every human life, to the value of socialism, and everything in between. 

In short, when it comes to resisting the radical effects which are plaguing much of higher education, Notre Dame is doing far better than most. But, Notre Dame is not simply a university. It has certain, specific commitments––it is a Catholic university. For all the virtues it might have as an academic institution, Notre Dame ought to worry first and foremost about protecting its Catholic mission to pursue and share the truth “for its own sake.”  

As most concerned onlookers have noticed, many historically Catholic universities have done little to merit, and much to lose, the title of “Catholic university.” Among the most prominent examples is Georgetown University, where even orthodox student clubs are labeled “hate groups,” and the progressive manipulation of social justice seems to take precedence over any kind of commitment to the faith. 

Because of questionable past decisions, and valid present concerns, many people tend to loop Notre Dame right along with Georgetown in the “no longer really Catholic” camp. Sure, issues like administrative decisions regarding contraceptive provision and questionable Laetare Medal awards indicate that Notre Dame is not heading in the right direction. 

However, I would hardly say that Notre Dame is lost. In fact, I would argue that there is reason to be more hopeful now than at any other point in the Rover’s history. 

Why this optimism? 

Well for starters, there is the outstanding work of the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture, which has fostered a powerful community of students, professors, and administrators who receive formation within the “Catholic moral and intellectual tradition.” Their Sorin Fellows program, which now includes over 150 undergraduates, is the perfect formational complement to the rigorous academics offered at Notre Dame. 

Then, there is the growing impact of student groups such as Right to Life, the Militia Immaculata, the Knights of Columbus, and the Children of Mary, which together form a sizeable coalition of committed Catholic students who realize the importance of the sacraments, recognize the beauty of the faith, and reflect a new generation of serious believers. To put it into perspective, over 1,000 Notre Dame students traveled by bus to the March for Life last year, through the coordinated efforts of Right to Life and the dCEC.

A fact that often surprises the more pessimistic observers of Notre Dame is that Mass is celebrated over 30 times every day on campus. It’s difficult to lose hope in Notre Dame’s Catholic identity when you know the Blessed Sacrament is present in virtually every building on campus. 

So, how to best categorize the current state of Notre Dame as a Catholic university? In essence, it is not difficult to find a genuinely and comprehensively Catholic education at Notre Dame, if that is what a student is consciously looking for. 

This should give the Rover a strong sense of mission over the next year, because a Catholic university should not merely offer the opportunity for a Catholic education to those who know to look for it – Catholic formation should be the default, the norm. Too many students at Notre Dame graduate without having entered into their faith, despite the fact that there are countless ways to do so each and every day. The Rover should aim to help Our Lady’s university become a place where formation in Christ permeates the daily lives of all people and jostles us out of the complacency we have come to know and worship.

“We live in a world of comfort. But we were not made for comfort, we were made for greatness.” – Pope Benedict XVI

Nicolas Abouchedid is a sophomore studying in the Program of Liberal Studies with minors in Philosophy and Chinese. He strongly believes that any movie worth watching should not be started after 7:30pm.