The contradiction of Notre Dame’s secular classroom and “Catholic neighborhood”

Looking around Notre Dame’s campus, the university’s Catholic culture is readily apparent. The basilica, grotto, and statue of Mary looking down from atop the dome are definitive signs of the religiosity of the campus. With the vibrant sacramental life on campus, organizations like the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture, a pro-life club boasting hundreds of student members, and much more, the influence of faith upon campus culture is undeniable.

All of these aspects of the life of faith on Notre Dame’s campus are both important and beautiful. They constitute what Professor Emeritus Alfred Freddoso referred to in the introduction to Charlie Rice’s book What Happened to Notre Dame as the “Catholic neighborhood” in which Notre Dame resides.

Freddoso comments upon the Catholic neighborhood in order to distinguish Catholic activity on campus from what is taught in the classroom. He argues that Notre Dame’s curriculum is no longer uniquely Catholic. Only a slim majority of the faculty is even nominally Catholic. And although one is more likely to find a faithful Catholic faculty member at Notre Dame than at most other schools, the education which each student receives is not primarily intellectual and moral formation in the truths of the faith. The classroom more closely resembles that of other elite universities. Essentially, Notre Dame is a secular school residing in a Catholic neighborhood.

Despite the fact that Freddoso and many others lament this change, others may view this relationship as ideal. They believe that an education directly informed by a Catholic view of the truth would be indoctrination rather than intellectual formation. One could argue that students can find religious and moral formation through their residential halls and extra-curricular activities. Reason is exercised in the classroom, and faith is a personal choice which one can freely make while outside of it.

But this relationship between faith and reason, neighborhood and classroom, is inherently contradictory.

First of all, it is unclear whether a faculty whose views are detached from the teachings of the Church will continue to attract students who are pursuing a holistically Catholic education. And, further, one might wonder whether the secular faculty in the school will submit to living in the “Catholic neighborhood” in which Notre Dame takes pride, this neighborhood being the mark of the university’s distinctly Catholic nature.

While students at Notre Dame still necessarily encounter many aspects of the faith while on campus—even if this is not the case in the classroom—this neighborhood has begun to weaken.

In the past decade, students successfully lobbied to create an officially recognized LGBT student group and the university added an option to provide contraceptives in their employee health insurance plans. Currently, students continue to protest two of the most prominent remaining aspects of the Catholic neighborhood: parietals and single-sex dorms.

Perhaps these circumstances seem unrelated to what is happening in the classroom, but it is impossible to separate the two. In fact, the Catholic neighborhood is challenged because its very existence is understandably confusing to many attendees of the secular school that is Notre Dame.

The understanding of academic freedom which permeates the nomenclature of the modern university is private institutions’ extension of the American legal system’s protection of the freedom of speech. Freedom of speech mandates that in a disagreement, it is unlawful to silence one side of a debate. A “free” classroom would mirror this. Debates over the right to abortion or the definition of marriage can be held openly in the classroom. And since there is a wide variety of views amongst the faculty and students at Notre Dame, certain classes will steer this discussion towards one answer or the other.

These questions seem to affect only the Catholic nature of the university herself, and not her neighborhood. However, if, for example, a student freely debates the question of abortion in class, does it not understandably seem unfair that, after leaving the classroom and entering the nieghborhod, there is a strong pro-life club but a pro-choice club is not allowed? In the Catholic neighborhood, one side of the argument is silenced by the teachings of the Church while the other is promoted.

The university’s decision to allow teachings contrary to Church doctrine in the classroom but to at least feign to disallow them outside of it has serious implications. It creates a false dichotomy between faith and reason. For instance, while using reason in class, professors can support abortion. But once out of class, it is the territory of faith, and the question is closed to discussion. The natural implication is that this faith may be contrary to reason. Religious faith remains around the university without influencing the content of the classroom.

If Catholic teaching is not explained rationally by permeating through classroom instruction, then one of two consequences will follow with regard to the Catholic neighborhood. Either students who do not understand Church teachings will continue to be confused by and upset with the Catholic neighborhood—rather than understanding how this neighborhood displays the beauty and goodness of the faith around which it is formed—or this neighborhood will disappear entirely, and Notre Dame will join the ranks of merely nominal Catholic schools.

W. Joseph DeReuil is a sophomore from St. Paul, MN studying philosophy and classics. He has been spending far less of his free time than he would like working through his seemingly endless reading list. He would still, however, appreciate any further book recommendations at