According to Notre Dame’s leadership, the university has what might be called a perception problem with external audiences. While outsiders know our school well for Catholicism and for football, they apparently do not appreciate sufficiently the scholarship and research that emanates from here. The University engaged, presumably at considerable cost, the world’s largest communications firm—Edelman—to bring this revelation to us.

Edelman is well known for servicing some of the major corporations in the country. It is reportedly noted for organizing so-called “astroturf campaigns” and has been very successful in doing so. These are calculated operations in which Edelman aids its clients to create various front groups and arranges for them to strategically submit various testimonials, letters and op-eds to media outlets under the guise of grassroots support to enhance the client’s reputation. Perhaps Edelman will offer its manipulative expertise to assist Notre Dame’s public relations staff as they fashion a strategy to communicate Notre Dame’s accomplishments to various target audiences in the academy and beyond. I look forward to reading the “testimonials” that they might help arrange to showcase (if that be the term) our research.

A distinct challenge for such public relations exercises, however, is that Notre Dame still trades on its past iconic place in American Catholic life.  But now the dominant elements in the audiences Notre Dame seeks to impress—the elite universities, the big foundations, the corporate media and many of the woke corporations—hold a negative view of Christianity, and especially of Catholicism. Christian morality, and especially sexual morality, is expressly repudiated and seen as almost a threat to the public good such that holding to an orthodox Christian view on marriage and on respect for life can be deemed offensive.

Notre Dame increasingly has met this circumstance not by standing strong in its Catholic identity. Instead, it has made notable concessions to the trends set elsewhere in the academy as it has pursued its quest to gain full acceptance in the upper realms of American higher education. This appeasement effort has been evident at Notre Dame for some time and is revealed in the dilution of the curriculum as well as in the programming of various academic units. It has an impact across a wide range of university entities, among them the Alumni Association and the Office of Admissions.

Ironically, the Edelman survey of perceptions of Notre Dame might not have accurately captured the reality concerning Notre Dame’s Catholicity. Notre Dame’s strength has been founded on its identity as a Catholic school, but sadly, the hollowing out of this identity from within has occurred in recent decades. It has grown worse over this past year.

Notre Dame now advertises that it is committed to the new trinity of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) which is pervasive on many American campuses. Enforcing the DEI agenda has become so prevalent that Jonathan Haidt, a thoughtful liberal scholar and founder of the Heterodox Academy, argues that the prosecution of this agenda now supplants the pursuit of truth as the basic aim in many American universities. And certainly at Notre Dame one hears much more about them than the traditional transcendentals of truth, beauty, and goodness—to say nothing of the actual Trinity professed by Christians, which should provide the ground of our being.

A task force of the Notre Dame Board of Trustees recently delivered a report entitled “Advancing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Notre Dame: A Strategic Framework.” The report attempted to address these subjects within the context of Notre Dame’s Catholic mission, but there was tension evident between the two. The task force held back from acknowledging that there are certain elements in the woke “inclusivity” agenda that run counter to Catholic thinking.  

The report failed to ask just how inclusive Notre Dame should be in accommodating elements of the gender ideology that dominates important areas of university life in the United States. It similarly failed to ask whether Notre Dame should deny the truth of human reality and the biological differences between men and women, as this increasingly dominant ideology would demand. It did not emphasize a Christian anthropology which accepts that God created us as male and female. Notre Dame prefers to obfuscate these matters as opposed to speaking the truth with love.

This was evident in the recent video on “sexual orientation and gender discrimination,” to which all incoming first year students were subjected. It adopted an essentially secular interpretation of diversity, equity, and inclusion, which placed it at odds with important elements of Catholic teaching on human identity and sexuality. It did not present a Christian vision of the human person.

Another disturbing development on campus recently arose from the decision of certain faculty members to advertise their readiness to assist female students to obtain abortions and to promote access to abortion as a social good. In a somewhat Orwellian exercise sponsored by the Notre Dame Gender Studies Program, a ‘teach-in’ was held which promoted the efforts of Planned Parenthood and criticized Indiana’s new abortion legislation as targeting marginalized groups. (This was outlandish nonsense in light of Planned Parenthood’s sustained campaign to target the African American community over many decades). At this event there was no mention of Catholic teaching on the dignity of every human life—the essential teaching that, as Pope Francis has explained, counters the “throw-away culture” that blithely dispenses with the innocent.

Such episodes as these are sure to continue if Notre Dame remains focused on improving its reputation with its “preferred peer schools.” It will surely come under pressure to conform to the practices regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion that operate in such schools. An explicitly non-Catholic interpretation of “gender inclusivity” might, of course, be marketed by careful public relations presentations as somehow or other in the ‘spirit’ of our Catholic mission. We can expect “requests” for gender inclusion statements in syllabi and for faculty to make various genuflections to gender theory and ideology. So much for Pope Francis’s deeming such gender theory “dangerous.” Unless there is a strong clarification that “our Catholic character informs all our endeavors” (as the university claims), we can expect further erosion of the university’s Catholic identity. Can gender inclusive housing on campus be far away? And in light of mandates being promulgated by the Biden administration, will the university make concessions to provide ‘reproductive rights’ healthcare?

 Notre Dame must clarify that it does not accept the secular interpretation of diversity, equity, and inclusion. The Catholic Church certainly sees every person as a beloved child of God and wants every person to be treated with respect and care—hence the whole thrust of Catholic teaching on respect for the dignity of every human person, born and unborn. The Church calls all to conversion of heart and to treat others as true sisters and brothers. But the University must not forego our Church’s moral code regarding respect for life and appropriate sexual behavior. We are called to love as Christ loved. We are not called to conform to the mandates of secular society.

Those who have followed the debate about Catholic universities know that Notre Dame is now fraying in those areas, such as student life, which once were strong elements of its Catholic identity. The danger now exists that the next time Edelman is contracted to do a survey regarding perceptions of Notre Dame, even the strong point of Catholicity won’t be mentioned. (I certainly hope football holds up or we may lose all the pillars of our distinctive identity!)

Notre Dame must resolve to swim with determination against the broad tide of contemporary higher education, knowing full well that this will not do much for our image as measured by firms like Edelman. It will put our rankings and our reputation with other universities and the media at risk. Can Notre Dame dare to be that different?

Sadly, in light of these recent episodes, it is more likely that Notre Dame will tepidly accommodate and seek to appease the prevalent cultural ethos. It likely will conform to the various mandates of the Biden administration, which aims to ram its woke agenda down the throats of Catholic institutions. Rather than evangelizing society, Notre Dame will allow the dominant culture to influence it. There will be more “kneeling before the world,” as Jacques Maritain would put it.

The Edelman firm likely could manage to place a favorable spin on this capitulation, but those who can face realities and speak truthfully won’t be fooled. In the end Notre Dame should attend much more to circumstances on campus than to outsiders’ perceptions of our community.  Let us be known for the pursuit of the truth in our endeavors, and for our adherence to the One who is “the way, the truth and the life.”

Fr. Bill Miscamble C.S.C.  is a professor in the Department of History and a member of the Rover’s faculty advisory board.

Photo Credit: Matthew Rice