“You cannot have a first-class university without a first-class art museum.” -Fr. Hesburgh

Notre Dame should not try to be a ‘good Catholic school.’ The United States already has plenty of those: nice places where pleasant young people can study their subject of choice without fear of conflict or controversy while attending daily Mass, meeting other faithful young people, and maybe even finding a spouse.

All these things are good and Catholic. But for an academic institution that prizes these things above others, its highest accomplishments and acclamations are those of the vibrant parish: the community is wholesome, doctrine is upheld, the people are nice! But as universities, they tend to be, well, mediocre.

When Notre Dame is called the “Catholic Ivy League,” this should be received as nothing other than the insult that it is. Even those who mean it as a compliment often understand “Catholic” as a limiting, rather than merely descriptive, qualifier: They do not mean that Notre Dame—a Catholic school—is among the handful of finest academic institutions in the world, but rather that—as Catholic schools go—it’s pretty darn good.

When, after a loss to Marshall, your well-meaning grandmother consoles you, “At least the Fighting Irish are still the highest-ranked Catholic team,” you justifiably roll your eyes—so we’re better than Boston College? But when it comes to academics, the university wears the “best Catholic” badge with pride.

We’ve all watched a “Catholic movie” or drunk a cup of “Catholic coffee.” Though it’s unquestionably a ‘nice’ thing to do—supporting the up-and-coming Catholic film enthusiast or the javahead with a penchant for inventing saint-related bean names—the “Catholic version” is almost invariably a tolerably bad product made by a guy you might run into at Mass.

But this approach conflates niceness with virtue and confuses the meaning of “Catholic.”

Using a word that means “universal” as a limiting qualifier—that is, ‘strive to be the best Catholic school’—reveals a misunderstanding not only of the word “Catholic” but also of virtue.

The virtue of a thing is its excellence at achieving the end for which it was created. Universities are more than a nice place to hang out and discuss important ideas with like-minded people: otherwise they would be indistinguishable from a pretty good public park—or even a pretty bad dive bar.

The project of the university is a Catholic endeavor—its name is derived from the Latin form of the same word: “universal.” It encounters all things, studying, critiquing, and teaching them with an intensity and focus. None of these things needs to be done nicely, even at a virtuous university. They need only be done well.

At Notre Dame, many departments require only 30-credit hours for a major—barely two semesters of coursework. And even still, they are often willing to waive requirements when students ask nicely.

What marker signifies that students at Notre Dame, especially in Arts and Letters, are excellent if their education is a “choose your own adventure,” where the vast majority of students receive an A or, heaven forbid, an Aminus. Members of the class of 2024 will receive Latin Honors—indicating that their GPA falls in the top-30 percent in their college or school—only if they surpass a 3.8 GPA in all four colleges; Arts and Letters students must obtain a 3.86. Just 20 years ago, this bar for Latin Honors was a 3.4 GPA.

Are our students that much better now than in the early 2000s? Or are professors worried that awarding a ‘B’ or ‘C’ is not a nice thing to do? US News and World Report supports the latter—Notre Dame’s ranking was the same or better throughout the early 2000s than it is now.

A lively spiritual and liturgical life is essential to form flourishing people. But those who wish to see Notre Dame become an excellent, Catholic school must also focus on the virtues of the university: academic virtues.

For Notre Dame to excel as a university—rather than as a theme park for committed young Catholics—both administrators and students must not confuse piety for the substance of the Catholic intellectual life. For Notre Dame to be a great university because she is Catholic, she must do more than offer pious extracurriculars. We cannot define the virtue of Catholic schools as separate from their academic record.

The Catholic character of the university is integral to what Notre Dame is, not only because of its history and the makeup of the student body, but primarily because Catholicism is true. But what is often forgotten by those of us worried about maintaining her Catholic character, is that academic excellence is the primary virtue, the sine qua non of the university.

Fr. Hesburgh recognized this need for excellence when he said, “You cannot have a first-class university without a first-class art museum.” The new Raclin Murphy has many fine exhibits and numerous pieces of sacred art; there’s even a chapel. The museum is not bad, and certain elements of it are even pious, but would anyone mistake it for being first-class? Even were the content of Notre Dame’s art museum entirely pious and Catholic, this would not—of itself—make it excellent. The same holds for the entire university.

Certainly, attention must be given to the Catholic orthodoxy of Notre Dame’s professors and administrators. But this must be done in conjunction with a concern for rigor and academic excellence. To argue otherwise would be to claim Catholicism incompatible with academics, faith with reason.

For the committed Catholic, the danger is no longer that the mind be cultivated at the expense of the heart. Rather, it is the opposite. The heart must not be cultivated at the expense of the mind.

 Joseph DeReuil is a senior who ostensibly majored in philosophy. He won’t mind if professors don’t take his message to heart before he graduates in May… He can be reached at wdereuil@nd.edu.

Paul Howard is a senior. His view of the eclipse was rather mediocre. He can be reached at phoward2@nd.edu.