Renowned Catholic thinker speaks on faith and the university

The University of Notre Dame hosted renowned Catholic author and speaker, Bishop Robert Barron of the Winona-Rochester diocese, to give a speech titled “What Makes a University Catholic?” on March 2. Student Government organized the event, which was co-sponsored by the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture, the McGrath Institute for Church Life, and Campus Ministry.

Bp. Barron celebrated the 5:15 Mass in the basilica and gave his speech a few hours later in the Downes Ballroom of Corbett Hall. Approximately 1,000 people filled the basilica during Mass, and about 700 attended the bishop’s speech.

Ben Nash, the Director of the Department of Faith, told the Rover why he invited Bishop Barron: “In my role in student government, I think constantly about how Notre Dame’s Catholic identity ought to characterize student life. Understanding Notre Dame’s mission and the Church’s vision for places like Notre Dame helps one to better engage with course material, get more out of student life, and productively engage in student activism.” 

Bp. Barron opened his speech by saying, “Essentially, a Catholic university is one in which Christ holds the central, integrating, and organizing place among all the disciplines and activities of the university.” The bishop was quick to note that this does not imply any sort of “epistemological imperialism” in which theology crowds out or stifles all other disciplines, but instead should create an environment in which “the relationship between Christ and all the other disciplines and activities is celebrated and explored with enthusiasm.” 

Bp. Barron grounded this practical point in a metaphysical claim about the divine nature: because God is not one supreme being standing among many beings, but is instead the radically transcendent ground of all reality, God does not compete with beings but in fact gives them their fullest expression. As a result, he said, “God enhances and makes luminous, He opens up a depth dimension to all of these disciplines.” Borrowing a phrase from philosopher Msgr. Robert Sokolowski, the Bishop said that just as God exists in “non-competitive transcendence” to all reality, theology has a “non-competitive transcendent relationship to the other disciplines.” 

His speech then examined how theology adds depth to mathematics, the physical sciences, history, literature, and law.

Mathematics, the study of intelligible, eternal, non-material truths, points to a reality beyond the material universe, “a world which touches upon the absolutely pure intelligibility of God.” The physical sciences assume a Christian theology of creation: contra many religious traditions, the material world itself is not divine, because it is separate from God. Nevertheless, the world “has been spoken intelligently into being” by the Divine Intelligence. These two ideas make it reasonable to analyze and inspect the material world to better understand the laws by which it is governed. 

History is enriched by the Christian meta-narrative in which all human affairs are nested within the gradual unfolding of the resurrected Christ’s lordship over heaven and earth and God’s salvation taking effect in time, which provides a counterbalance to the meta-narratives of other political or philosophical ideologies. 

Following William Faulkner’s definition of good literature as “the story of the human heart in conflict with itself,” Bp. Barron stated that literature can be best studied in conversation with St. Augustine’s famous statement, “our hearts are restless until they rest in God.” As the Bishop said, “At bottom, all literature opens up onto a hunger and a thirst for God.” 

Finally, Bp. Barron drew upon St. Thomas Aquinas and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail to demonstrate that human laws are best studied when understood to be nested within the eternal law, and that this metaphysical foundation gives human laws their justice and their authority. 

During the Q&A session, Bishop Barron touched on the proper relationship between a Catholic university and the Catholic Church. Asked whether he prefers Pope St. John Paul II’s encyclical Ex Corde Ecclesiae or the Land O’Lakes Statement, which was heavily influenced by Notre Dame’s own Fr. Ted Hesburgh, Bishop Barron joked, “ask Fr. Bill Miscamble.” He then advocated for the more integrated conception propounded by Ex Corde Ecclesiae. This followed naturally from the Bishop’s thesis: theology, whose truths flow from the Church, should play a vital integrating role among all the disciplines of a Catholic university, the university would be poorly served by setting itself apart from the Church. 

Students in the audience received this message of interdisciplinary theological integration enthusiastically. Faith Schafer, a junior resident of McGlinn Hall, said, “I think it’s important that he emphasized the need to celebrate the relationship between Catholicism and the other disciplines, especially as so many schools seem to apologize for being Catholic today. We should be able to learn about the faith and other disciplines together.” 

Kyle Elliott, a resident of Alumni Hall, highlighted how the ultimate orientation of the various academic disciplines towards Christ opened doors for ecumenical outreach and authentic inclusion. “The bishop’s message showed how we as Catholics can strive for inclusion and love for all, while also staying true to our own values.” 

Nash emphasized the importance of Barron’s visit, explaining, “I think Bishop Barron’s visit was a profound grace for our community. I am encouraged to think that folks from all over are seeing Notre Dame student government hosting such an excellent talk, and recognizing Notre Dame as being in a league of its own in terms of the implementation of the Bishop’s vision.” 

Interested readers can hear the Bishop’s full remarks on the de Nicola Center’s YouTube channel.

Jack McEnery is a sophomore PLS major with Digital Marketing and Theology minors living in Alumni Hall. He can usually be found reading in the PLS lounge while consuming copious quantities of caffeine, and is quite comfortable collecting questions, concerns, or chocolate chip cookies from anyone. You can email him at (especially if you have chocolate chip cookies).

Photo credit: Bishop Barron lectures in Corbett Hall Picture by Peter Ringenberg courtesy of the Department of Faith

Subscribe to the Irish Rover here

Donate to the Irish Rover here