Pessimism and the passive forfeiture of Notre Dame’s Catholic identity
“I wouldn’t send my kids to Notre Dame,” the jaded undergraduate student opines, beginning a litany of Notre Dame’s offenses: the school has become too secular, professors too liberal, student government too woke, and the administration too swayed by wealth, prestige, and national ranking. In short, they say, Notre Dame is not Catholic enough now, and it will certainly not be recognizably Catholic after several decades of secular ideology water down what remains.
These concerns are not unsubstantiated. The jaded undergraduate student perceives threats to Notre Dame’s Catholic identity—and rightly so. Just this year, the Rover has published articles about the university’s incoherent approach to LGBT issues on campus, Provost Emerita Marie-Lynn Miranda’s inability to articulate the ends of education at Notre Dame, and Associate Vice President for Undergraduate Enrollment Don Bishop’s concern about portraying the university as “too Catholic” to prospective students.
It doesn’t take long for a freshman eager for a distinctly Catholic education to realize the disappointment of Welcome Weekend or the inanity of the Moreau First Year Experience curriculum. Freshmen will also soon learn the editorial biases of the Observer, which surfaced explicitly last fall when the editorial board argued that the articulation of the Catholic Church’s teaching on sexuality was “hateful and discriminatory language” having “no place on our tri-campus.”
Occurrences such as these lead to cynical comments about the state of Notre Dame’s Catholicity by well-meaning family and friends. These comments sow seeds of suspicion, take root as frustration, and bear the fruit of disillusionment.
In the eyes of the jaded undergraduate who wouldn’t send his or her children here for college, Notre Dame has been tried and has been found wanting. And so, after graduation, he or she will turn elsewhere in pursuit of robust Catholic education.
Yet, this impulse to retreat from Notre Dame in search of a truly Catholic school is premature, and it is even immature.
It is premature, for it fails to recognize all that is good at this university, all that safeguards and secures Catholic identity, and all that holds potential for the continued preservation of authentically Catholic education. One need only look at institutions like Georgetown and Boston College to realize how vacuous nominally-Catholic formation can become. Notre Dame is far from perfect, but she is not yet too far gone.
Pessimism to the point of retreat is immature when complaints and concern are not accompanied by action. Students occupy a unique place in the life of the university: they are unfettered by concerns about tenure or job security and are intimately familiar with developments in campus life. Faculty, staff, and alumni can still promote Catholic identity—and so many have embraced this cause, sometimes at the cost of professional success. In contrast, students are relatively unencumbered, free to engage more openly in these conversations. Yet how many students actively engage in the fight for Notre Dame’s Catholic identity?
Pessimism about Notre Dame’s future offers a twisted perception of comfort. The narrative of a decadent society that presents the options of retreating or being eaten alive has certainly become increasingly popular among both conservatives and Christians. This narrative offers an easy way out. Why invest in declining institutions? Would it not be better to cut our losses, retreat to insular Catholic communities, and try to preserve our values among like minds? Such a retreat can seem attractive, but—at least when applied to Notre Dame—it only serves to perpetuate the continual disillusionment of the jaded undergraduate.
This pessimism permits the passive forfeiture of Notre Dame’s Catholic character, giving rise to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Catholic identity does not defend itself. The university does not remain Catholic unless students actively work to secure the preservation of this identity. To forfeit the cause is to ensure the erosion of Notre Dame’s Catholic character.
Earlier this month, Patrick Lee and Sofie Stitt won the student government election. Their campaign was, in many ways, an invitation to students who have felt unrepresented by past student body leadership, which has modeled itself off of trends in progressive national politics. The Lee-Stitt platform appealed to many sectors of the student body—the jaded undergraduate among them—with the promise to represent the interests of Notre Dame students and to preserve and promote Notre Dame’s Catholic identity. Their ticket won over the opposing platform—which was endorsed by LGBTQ+ Domers, FeministND, College Democrats, and the Observer, among other organizations—and Judicial Council reported the highest voter turnout in five years.
Realistically, student government plays a small role in determining the trajectory of Notre Dame’s Catholic character. I am cautiously optimistic that the Lee-Stitt ticket will advance the Catholic mission of the university, but their leadership will speak for itself in due time. Nevertheless, the election of Lee-Stitt demonstrates the fruits of active engagement, particularly by students who might otherwise write off something like a student government election as predetermined to deliver results contrary to the interests of Catholic identity.
Now, we must turn to the ongoing search for a new provost. In an email on December 23, 2021, Fr. John Jenkins, C.S.C. encouraged members of the Notre Dame community to submit a letter to the provost search committee. Woe to the jaded undergraduate who shrugs his shoulders and passes up the opportunity to express a genuine desire for a provost who will love Notre Dame “because of the university’s Catholic commitment, not despite it.” One letter may seem insignificant, but the accumulation of letter upon letter expressing this vision for the university will impact the committee’s discernment.
When Catholic students stand together, united around a common goal, we can enact change. When we turn frustration into conversation with leadership, professors, rectors, and classmates, we can contribute to the ongoing fight for the Notre Dame we know and love.
Priorities dictate action. Rather than retreating into insular Catholic social circles, students concerned about Notre Dame’s future should engage with renewed vigor in campus life. Otherwise, the jaded undergraduate wins. Or, rather, the jaded undergraduate passively permits the tides of secularism to sweep Notre Dame away, delivering a victory to those who would prioritize prestige over Catholic identity and secular ideals over Catholic education.
In previous issues of the Rover, I have expressed my concerns about the ways Notre Dame lives out her Catholic identity and, when needed, I will do so again. But, to the jaded undergraduate or the frustrated alumnus, I promise this: I would send my kids to Notre Dame—to fight for her, to be formed by her, and to love this university as I do.
Mary Frances Myler is a senior majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies with minors in theology and constitutional studies. When she’s not reading for class or writing her thesis, she’s usually contemplating Notre Dame’s Catholic identity. She invites you to share your thoughts on that topic by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.