“To that lovely Lady, raised high on a dome, a Golden Dome, men may look and find the answer.” – Fr. Edward Sorin

God, Country, Notre Dame: Fr. Hesburgh, the renowned former president of the university, titled his autobiography with this famous phrase—taken from the inscription above the east doors of the basilica—making it the unofficial slogan of the university for decades to come. 

But, even if it once was, this motto is no longer rooted in the exceptionalism required for fitting service of the Incarnate God. It has morphed into a recognition that Notre Dame will constantly move with the ever-shifting landscape of a democratic world—so much so that the broader culture has taken Notre Dame as its litmus test for American religiosity. 

The origins of this transformation can be found through examining Fr. Hesburgh’s legacy. Father Hesburgh successfully formulated the modern Catholic research university: Notre Dame now stands alone in its distinct combination of academic prestige and commitment to the faith. 

While much has changed at Notre Dame since Hesburgh’s tenure, the university remains a deeply American institution. Superficially, this commitment is manifested through the university’s proud support of the armed forces, an allegiance not found at other elite American universities. As opposed to its peers, Notre Dame does not harbor an openly anti-American attitude among its student body, nor a particularly political climate on campus. In fact, Notre Dame is one the few universities yet to face legitimate controversy regarding the ongoing conflict in Gaza, while campuses all around the country have become hot-beds of political activism.

This could be a product of Notre Dame’s demographics, religiosity, tradition, location, or any combination of these things. Wherever it comes from, though, Notre Dame is unapologetically devoted to America. In many ways, the university has found its niche as an unabashedly American and unmistakably Catholic university. 

But this too often means that the university simply mirrors the political and social landscapes of the country as a whole—often holding “democratic norms” in place of truth. 

Currently, this is best exemplified through the university’s recent and uncharacteristically passionate commitment to upholding “democratic norms” in the face of the alleged attacks on democracy. The Office of the President is hosting a year-long forum on “The Future of Democracy” which has hosted Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan and Senators Chris Coon and Todd Young. The forum’s uninspiring topics—bipartisanship, civility, and voting rights—seem a half-hearted attempt to mollify left leaning media, professors, and students while refraining from offending lukewarm alumni on the right and the small conservative contingent on campus. The forum targets the political extremism of our time, concluding thus far that our democracy would be saved if there was only more open dialogue and if more young people voted. 

While typically insipid on matters of public interest or controversy, Provost John McGreevy and Dean of the College of Arts and Letters Sarah Mustillo penned an emotional letter which disavowed the flying of a “God, Country, Notre Dame” flag in the U.S. Capitol during the January 6, 2021 protests. They wrote, “Authentic respect for God, country and Notre Dame means rejecting the attack on democracy at the people’s Capitol on Jan. 6, denouncing race-based violence and blocking these toxic political views from distorting conversations about the future of our Church.” 

Their letter, at its core, represents the true essence of God, Country, Notre Dame today on campus: God informs the democratic morality which distinguishes us from other elite universities. This formulation is as unobjectionable as it is bland.  

Political conservatives are placated by the university’s basic commitments to the “right to life” and to the “American Project.” But the university’s loose interpretation of Church teaching on sexuality and its relatively liberal consensus among the faculty satisfies the contemporary center-left. Both sides claim discrimination, yet neither have the zeal to push back. 

What instances such as McGreevy and Mustillo’s letter exemplify, though, is that the university will unequivocally stick close to the middle, even when that middle is constantly shifting left. Whether through its continued secularization or its continued abandonment of traditional teachings on sexuality, Notre Dame’s institutional positioning does not stray far from the path of national consensus. 

This centrism is far from the vision put forth by the winner of Fr. Sorin and Ave Maria Press’s May 31, 1866 essay contest, instituted to commemorate the official consecration of the University of Notre Dame and the dedication of the statue of the Virgin Mary atop the dome. 

After co-winning the contest, Orestes Brownson—now buried in the crypt of the basilica—was commissioned by Fr. Sorin to write an essay on the importance of national devotion to Our Lady by Fr. Sorin. In the essay, Brownson argued that Mary ought to be the image that our country follows, because Mary was fully human and assumed into heaven. He writes, “Mary’s virtues [being] the virtues of our own race is a reason why the devotion to her … is fitted to exert a most salutary influence on individuals and nations, and on the manners and morals of society at large.”

As Brownson explains, our devotion to the Virgin Mary ought to inspire our community and its leaders to be unafraid of stepping beyond societal norms, offering the country an authentic depiction of what it means to be a Catholic university at its core. We should work to cultivate her virtues in their fullness—not reshape them according to secular moral consensus.

Instead, Notre Dame embodies the status quo. Her unrelenting commitment to the cultural “middle” places her under the scrutiny of national media on a nearly monthly basis. National audiences on both sides of the political spectrum react to the frequent appearance of the Golden Dome on their Twitter feed with the same reaction: “Look at what happens at a Catholic university…” 

Notre Dame thus bears a responsibility unlike many of its peer institutions. This responsibility originates not just from its unique political makeup nor its frequent appearance in news, but most fundamentally from its Catholic identity. As long as the university maintains a commitment and appearance of Catholicity, the responsibility will grow. 

Nico Schmitz is a senior from Los Angeles, California in the Program of Liberal Studies. He can be reached at nschmit2@nd.edu.

Photo Credit: University of Notre Dame

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