During Notre Dame’s opening loss to Ohio State, the university unveiled a new nationally televised ad titled, “Be Notre Dame.” Every year the university airs a new advertisement focusing on a specific topic, such as last year’s 30-second ad on climate change. The Notre Dame YouTube channel describes, “This year’s message seeks to convey the breadth and depth of the Notre Dame identity by answering the rhetorical question, “What does it mean to be Notre Dame?”

The video describes what Notre Dame students ought to be, claiming “You have to explore, question, set an example, pursue truth, get messy, struggle, discover, be curious, lead, succeed, be open minded, be a community, and be a force for good in the world.” 

Alongside the short phrases describing the Notre Dame student are dramatic action shots. The video almost exclusively features shots of scientific research or related subjects, equating the pursuit of truth with the study of microbiology and being open minded while looking at art in the Snite museum. On the surface, the advertisement is a fun and creative depiction of the academic caliber of the university. But it leaves the Notre Dame student and fan alike questioning what makes Our Lady’s university truly different from our state school opponent. 

In his inaugural address to the faculty last week, University President Rev. John Jenkins, C.S.C., highlighted the necessity for Notre Dame to continue to grow and succeed as a research university. Grounding his speech in the ideas of William Kirby’s book Empires of Ideas: Creating the Modern University from Germany to America to China, Jenkins stated, “While Notre Dame is one of the most trusted and respected universities, and well known for football and Catholicity, its research and global reach is less well known. We must work together to help various constituencies appreciate the important work that … [our] faculty are doing in research and teaching.”

Notre Dame’s embrace of the idea of the research university is certainly not something new and its relationship with the preservation of the Catholic identity of the university will continue to be debated for some time. Entangled within this debate, though, is the practical matter of what will continue to draw students to South Bend for $70,000 a year. 

The university’s main promotional media series, “What Would You Fight For?”—an award-winning advertising campaign that broadcasts two minute clips on NBC during football games—highlights the research and scholarly work of the Notre Dame community around the world. Channeling the ethos of the “Fighting Irish” and the university’s motto to be a “force for good in the world,” the videos depict recent Notre Dame research in anything from renewable energy to developments in firefighter gear

Notre Dame has accomplished tremendous things through its research, and these breakthroughs should not be dismissed. But they attempt to show the outside world that, above all, Notre Dame is a unique research school in that it focuses on social justice and human flourishing. The promotional materials, completely shying away from discussion of Catholicism or the liberal arts, reflect the university’s general path towards entering the field of the secular elite schools, but surpassing them in their material societal contributions. 

On the university’s official Twitter page, this rootedness in human-centered research displays itself through peculiar tweets. For example, the account recently promoted ND research connecting childhood lead exposure to lower reading scores and structural racism. 

The university’s official website almost exclusively contains previews and links to the latest Notre Dame research, although it does feature a tab on “Faith and Service” on the main page. This tab’s caption reads, “Notre Dame is animated by a faith that inspires us to seek knowledge because of the powerful tool it can be to improve humankind.” While the university maintains that the Catholic character informs all that it does, it risks, as the website alludes to, treating the Faith simply as a means towards material progress.  

If the societally-focused research of Notre Dame is not enough to set Notre Dame apart from other elite institutions, what is? 

Fr. Jenkins addressed this question in his remarks: “I will not claim that we are the only university to offer intellectually stimulating, challenging, pedagogically effective classes, but I do believe that we are distinguished by the care you show for the learning, well-being and future success of our students.”

Notre Dame advertises itself as an elite research institution with academic rigor, a beautiful campus, and “nice” people. If one were to ask a random sample of students on campus: “Why did you choose Notre Dame?”, most, as Fr. Jenkins suggests, would likely iterate some form of the idea that they came to Notre Dame for the academic rigor and welcoming community. 

Notre Dame does set herself apart from other elite universities through its strong community, but this community stems from her Catholic foundation. Failing to realize this is not only erosive but ultimately futile. An abandonment of its Catholic faith in both messaging and practice will slowly erode the “community” that makes Notre Dame unique. 

The new promotional video for Mass displayed in the second half of every Notre Dame football home game helps further demonstrate the issue. 

For the past several years the video’s climax was a dramatic and reverent clip of the consecration: displaying the Body and Blood of Christ as fans in the stadium cheered in excitement. For the 2022–2023 season, the university unveiled a new Mass video that replaces the Body and Blood of Christ with a reflection on the welcoming spirit of the school. The new climax is Fr. Pete McCormick C.S.C. telling the actors to “offer each other the sign of peace.” 

The dramatically edited and well-crafted video notably has not received the same cheers as in years past, but most unfortunately, it fails to depict the most important and fundamental part of the Mass and our Catholic faith: Holy Communion. While perhaps noble in intention to attract more fans to Mass, the video seemingly reflects a problem that any undergraduate student has witnessed in dorm Masses and in the classroom: a misalignment of priorities. 

The Catholic character cannot be invoked only to create a more welcoming community and academic breakthrough. Rather, it ought to be actualized to form students to become holy and pursue Truth. Without being authentically grounded and informed by the faith, emphases on a uniquely welcoming community and a socially-focused research environment lose their essence and will erode. To further preserve the worth of a Notre Dame education, its students, faculty, and administrators must consistently work to celebrate, not deal with, its Catholic character. 

Nico Schmitz is a junior in the Program of Liberal Studies from Pasadena, CA. While he is often confused about what research actually means, he has reaped the benefits of Notre Dame’s great community. You can find him anywhere on campus except for the College of Science or College of Engineering or feel free to contact him at nschmit2@nd.edu.

Photo Credit: Matthew Rice