“The position that Christianity assigns itself in the history of religions is one that was basically expressed long ago: it sees in Christ the only real salvation of man” –Pope Benedict XVI, Truth and Tolerance
“Notre Dame’s character as a Catholic academic community presupposes that no genuine search for the truth in the human or the cosmic order is alien to the life of faith,” declares the university’s mission statement. It then concludes, asserting, “in all dimensions of the University, Notre Dame pursues its objectives through the formation of an authentic human community graced by the Spirit of Christ.”
In mission and history, the university clearly is committed to truth and an authentic human community in Christ and his Church. As a Catholic university, Notre Dame is committed to truth for its own sake and forming a community that is oriented towards making God known, loved, and served.
In recent months though, a submission of the Catholic identity to prevailing relativistic trends has been seen in the explicit promotion of other faith traditions through social media and public displays of the university. Twice over the past two months, the official University twitter posted a celebration of other faith traditions. The post reads, “we are also working to ensure those faiths are supported and celebrated.”
The article attached to the tweet cites Mahan Mirza, executive director of the Ansari Institute for Global Engagement with Religion, who argues that scholars from various traditions, especially Islam, are interested in Notre Dame merely because it is a place that grapples with questions that have a deeper meaning. Mirza redefines the university’s mission, stating, “At the University, we have a clear mission that education is enriched by bringing a plurality of voices to the table.”
His argument is partially correct. The Notre Dame mission statement emphatically defends the need for the exchange of ideas and exploration of the entirety of human tradition and culture, claiming that “the intellectual interchange essential to a university requires, and is enriched by, the presence and voices of diverse scholars and students.” But Mirza supplants this focus on diverse scholars and students with promotion of other faith traditions for diversity’s sake alone.
The next sentence of the mission statement reads, “The Catholic identity of the University depends upon, and is nurtured by, the continuing presence of a predominant number of Catholic intellectuals.” The statement later makes clear that diversity is meant to support the Catholic identity: “The University welcomes all areas of scholarly activity as consonant with its mission, subject to appropriate critical refinement. There is, however, a special obligation and opportunity, specifically as a Catholic university, to pursue the religious dimensions of all human learning”.
Undeniably, scholars and community members of other faiths can and ought to be respected in the Notre Dame community. As stated in the Catechism, respectful dialogue between faith traditions is encouraged both for personal profit and to spread the Good News to those in error (CCC 856). The question, then, is whether the university can, in good faith, celebrate other faith traditions.
By celebrating other faith traditions on campus and in public messaging, the university inherently shifts the Catholic anchoring of its mission to a simple pursuit of any questions regarding faith or any individual’s truth claim, reducing the Catholic position of the school to mean support for meaningful questions rather than the truth of the Catholic faith.
The muddled environment created by such celebration was further displayed in the popular Notre Dame Alumni Association daily video series called “Sacred Stories: A Daily Advent Journey.” This year, Ryan Harris, a former Notre Dame football player, was featured in a Sacred Story to describe how Notre Dame made him a better Muslim. Harris’ message of how he experienced respect and dialogue while on campus as a Muslim student is certainly worth valuing and appreciating. In fact, Harris claims that as part of the Notre Dame community his witness of fasting during Ramadan led many of his Catholic peers to take up fasting as part of their lives of faith.
When this video is viewed in context, however, its problems are illuminated. Its placement in a series of devotional reflections to help faithful Christians prepare their hearts for the birth of the Son of God is erosive and only creates confusion regarding the contents of the Catholic faith. Including Islamic witness within a series on Advent reduces the season from preparation for the Incarnation and Second coming of Christ (which is completely antithetical to Islam) to simply being a few weeks of the year dedicated to general reflection.
Around the university, the question of interfaith dialogue and tolerance continues to be examined. In just the past few weeks, the university has announced the creation of a new Interfaith Notre Dame Initiative that will launch on Earth Day 2023, as well as the creation of a new Global Religious Observances Holiday Calendar that students can add to their preferred scheduling system.
For guidance on these issues, we would do well to turn to Pope Benedict XVI in memory of his life of service to the Church and his legacy of reasoned, charitable, and thoroughly Christian engagement with other faiths.
In his well-known book Truth and Tolerance, Benedict writes, “The dominant impression of most people today is that all religions, with a varied multiplicity of forms and manifestations, in the end are and mean one and the same thing … The man of today will for the most part scarcely respond with an abrupt No to a particular religion’s claim to be true.”
In further explanation, Pope Benedict adds that the relativistic approach to religion when all beliefs are treated of equal use, religion becomes of no use and people actually find themselves less free. He summarizes this claim, “By treating all content as comparably valid and with the idea that all religions are different and yet actually the same, you get nowhere.”
Acknowledging the necessity for dialogue and the pursuit of truth in modern society, Benedict closes his book by stating that first and foremost when questions of God become separate from questions of truth, man loses his complete freedom.
In a time where the university already struggles to articulate the truth of the Catholic faith on the most basic level, turning towards other religions as the source for further formation and knowledge will likely only add to confusion. This message from Pope Benedict should form and guide the university’s approach to the questions of tolerance and modernity for Christians today. Notre Dame ought to serve as the model of participating in inter-religious dialogue while never compromising on the truth that Catholicism is the only complete expression of divine revelation.
Nico Schmitz is a junior in the Program of Liberal Studies from Pasadena, California. When not watching Dodger baseball or trying to catch up on his readings, he can be found studying in Baumer Hall. Contact him at email@example.com.