What Notre Dame can learn from Fulton Sheen

In introducing the Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen to his Firing Line television audience, Willian F. Buckley Jr. once noted that “he [Sheen] is considered by almost everybody a great enigma.” He continues:

Those who like to disparage his evangelism have a difficult time accounting for his extraordinary academic record. Those who claim him as a conservative are continually amazed at his positions in behalf of statist welfarism. Those who have been inspired by his anti-communist lectures which began in the early thirties cannot understand his current calls for withdrawing from Vietnam.

It is not surprising that people saw Archbishop Sheen as an enigma, given that his public stances never squarely aligned with any one political party, academic framework, or social movement. While many would have seen this characteristic as a weakness—we still like to criticise public figures for “flipping” too often, or too quickly—the fact is that Archbishop Sheen’s seemingly contradictory stances only appear as such when viewed through an ideological lens. To conservatives and progressives alike, he never quite fit their mold.

But that’s the thing: his stances never stemmed from ideological commitments, they stemmed from a personal commitment, a commitment to Christ. He knew that his firm faith in Christ would not always coincide with the times’ dominant strain of thought, and also knew which of the two to value when they came into tension. 

Today, Notre Dame could learn a lot from the example of Archbishop Sheen.

Many movements in the modern academic and social zeitgeist are in tension with Notre Dame’s commitment to Catholic education. Advocates for the vast majority of these movements want Notre Dame to be more like other universities; they view Notre Dame through the lens of some external standard, and find that it doesn’t quite fit. 

These are the movements which affirm that our academics should be more like those of the Ivy League. The movements that wish Irish athletics were more like those of the BIG10 schools. The movements that would have our admissions process value perceived oppression and skin color over merit and genuine passion for Our Lady’s University.  The movements that wish our commitment to our Catholic mission was more like that of other historically Catholic universities. 

Such movements are already at work on campus, and it is not difficult to cite concrete examples. After winning a religious freedom exemption to the federal contraceptive mandate, Notre Dame received baseless accusations of sexism from the secular-progressive media elites, and eventually caved to their ideological demands. On issues like gender identity and sexuality, Notre Dame’s messaging to students has adopted the vocabulary formulated by social theories which directly oppose Catholic anthropology. And, whereas Notre Dame has managed to somewhat avoid the national crisis of academic freedom and diversity of thought, it is quickly yielding this advantage, as safe-spaces and anonymous reporting websites are promoted across campus. 

That is not to say that there aren’t many positive developments at Notre Dame, even with regards to our Catholic mission and campus spiritual life. There certainly are. But, the real threats to the core of the University’s mission merit attention, and should force us to pause and consider what we can do to help our university follow Christ and not the doctrines imposed by other universities and external observers.

Otherwise, Notre Dame is bound to become just an off-brand version of any other school. We’ll have an academic program modeled after (but not quite like) that of Harvard; the football program modeled after (but not quite like) that of Ohio State; student body modeled after (but not quite like) that of the politically-acceptable diversity pool. We’ll probably look something like Georgetown does today, with a vague notion of a Catholic history, but mostly a breeding ground of progressive secularism

If that happens, our “peer institutions” may well recognize us as one of their own. They’ll be proud that Notre Dame finally decided to get with the times and adhere to their academic, social, and political doctrines. 

But will the Church, her faithful, and her Founder recognize us? 

In a real sense, Our Lady’s University risks losing “the magic in the sound of her name.” And that’s not merely a played-out trope used on University advertisements to invoke a sense of nostalgia. To those of us privileged to be part of this family, to have walked through campus, prayed in the Grotto, cheered in the stadium, and loved every minute, that “magic” is very real, and it is unique to Notre Dame. 

It is that same magic which allowed Bishop Sheen to touch millions of lives, even through the screen of a black-and-white television. It’s the magic that the Church recognized this summer, as it prepared the path for Bishop Sheen’s beatification. It’s the magic that comes with being an enigma to “almost everybody,” as Buckley Jr. so adequately put it nearly 50 years ago. 

And we, Notre Dame, should seek to be an enigma to almost everybody. An enigma to everybody, except to Christ. 

Nicolas Abouchedid is a junior majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies, with minors in philosophy and Chinese. He is originally from, and hopes to one day return to, Caracas, Venezuela. Contact him at nabouche@nd.edu