Given the recent discussion of the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture in various public fora in tandem with the recently announced transition in its leadership, we are grateful for the opportunity to clear up some persistent misimpressions concerning its work and to offer some thoughts about the relationship between Catholic identity and serious, rigorous, and excellent academic research and teaching.

What Does the de Nicola Center Do?

By its charter, the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture was founded 25 years ago as an academic center dedicated to exploring the richness of the Catholic moral and intellectual tradition across a variety of disciplines at the very highest level. Its work focuses on a wide array of perennial questions concerning human flourishing, beauty, justice, friendship, dignity, freedom, and the common good, as well as contemporary applied issues in ethics and public policy, including concrete matters related to bioethics, racial justice, persons with disabilities, poverty, human rights, and the full spectrum of culture of life issues. 

In support of this mission, the dCEC has pursued a robust program of research and publishing, teaching and student formation, service, and engagement in the global public square. 

While the dCEC is a center rooted firmly in the Catholic tradition, it has always—in the spirit of our current Senior Distinguished Fellow and principal intellectual inspiration, Alasdair MacIntyre—pursued active and sustained dialogue with other traditions of thought, both religious and secular, and will continue to do so. 

In short, the work of the dCEC advances Notre Dame’s broader mission “to provide a forum where, through free inquiry and open discussion, the various lines of Catholic thought may intersect with all the forms of knowledge found in the arts, sciences, professions, and every other area of human scholarship and creativity.”

We are gratified that, over the years, the dCEC has developed a reputation for unparalleled academic excellence and is widely seen, both in the U.S. and internationally, as a singular forum for rigorous and fruitful intellectual exchange across diverse traditions and perspectives.

The dCEC, and all its leaders, staff, and supporters, have worked hard to earn this reputation. 

Our Senior Distinguished Fellows (individuals who are actively engaged in the work of the dCEC), Alasdair MacIntyre, Mary Ann Glendon, and John Finnis, are among the most accomplished scholars in the world. Our visiting fellows program has attracted elite faculty such as Harvard’s Jim Hankins, Georgetown’s John Keown, and St. John’s College’s Zena Hitz, who have used their time at the Center to complete important research projects. Our forty faculty fellows are among the most distinguished scholars at Notre Dame (including one dean). 

Faculty and fellows affiliated with the de Nicola Center are elected fellows of the most important scholarly societies and routinely testify before Congress, federal courts, the United Nations, and serve as advisors to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, officials of the Holy See, and Pope Francis himself.

The dCEC Fall Conference is not only the largest annual academic event held at Notre Dame (drawing more than 1,500 participants each year), it regularly features preeminent thinkers from around the world such as Nobel Laureate Jim Heckman, Harvard’s Michael Sandel, McGill’s Charles Taylor, Princeton’s Robert P. George, Stanford’s Robert Pogue Harrison, California Poet Laureate Dana Gioia, Harper’s editor-in-chief and novelist Christopher Beha, University of Chicago’s Jonathan Lear, the Sorbonne’s Remi Brague, the Sagrada Familia’s Chief Sculptor Etsuro Sotoo, Director of the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo Msgr. Timothy Verdon, Ignat Solzhenitsyn, Pierbattista Cardinal Pizzaballa (Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem), Duke’s Stanley Hauerwas, Academy Award Winner Whit Stillman, Cambridge’s Simon Conway Morris, Arizona State’s Craig Calhoun, and Alasdair MacIntyre (who has presented a paper every year).

In addition to the Fall Conference, the dCEC has partnered closely with preeminent institutions including Duke University, the Sorbonne, Harvard University, and Stanford University in a wide variety of academic programming. An international, interdisciplinary consortium on the work of Dante Alighieri is in the early stages of development with collaboration from scholars in London, Rome, St. Andrews, and the University of Notre Dame. Here at Notre Dame, the dCEC has collaborated with the president’s office, deans from multiple colleges, and institutes and centers including the Cushwa Center, the Nanovic Institute, the McGrath Institute for Church Life, and the Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities, among many others.

In partnership with Stephen Wrinn, director of the University of Notre Dame Press, the dCEC has four active book series that have published 28 award-winning titles since 2016, including by such authors as Remi Brague, Pierre Manent, Yves Simon, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Edmund Pellegrino, and the unpublished and untranslated works of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (by special arrangement directly with the Solzhenitsyn family).

Our current 675 undergraduate and graduate de Nicola Center Sorin Fellows participate in a host of rich academic programming including lectures, reading groups, and supervised research internships. The dCEC provides multiple graduate and law school fellowships each year to the most outstanding students at Notre Dame.

Under our mission stewardship initiative, the dCEC has provided funding to recruit, hire, and retain outstanding regular faculty both at the entry and senior levels. Currently, the de Nicola Center sponsors nine faculty lines (including two endowed chairs) in the Colleges of Arts & Letters, the College of Science, the Law School, and the Keough School.

The Catholic Tradition and Academic Excellence

The dCEC self-consciously pursues these interdisciplinary scholarly activities at the highest levels of excellence because and not in spite of its deeply held Catholic commitments and rootedness in the Catholic tradition. In keeping with the Mission Statement of Our Lady’s University, Notre Dame’s Catholic identity in the most robust possible sense entails including faithfulness to “a sacramental vision [which] encounters God in the whole of creation”; “an intelligibility and a coherence to all reality, discoverable through spirit, mind, and imagination”; to Christ and to personal and ecclesial encounter with Christ; and to a communal, communitarian spirit capacious enough to include “the many theological traditions, liturgies, and spiritualities that fashion the life of the Church.” 

To be a Catholic institution is thereby to embrace a generous vision of truth that can afford to be generous not because it attempts to operate in a neutral space or so-called “view from nowhere,” but precisely because it is Catholic. As Romano Guardini has written so eloquently in The Church and the Catholic, “genuine catholicity, which is seriously convinced of the supernatural and dogmatic character of Catholicism, is the most open-minded and the most comprehensive attitude…in existence.” The wideness of the Catholic vision means that all aspects of human life and thought, particularly research and scholarship across all the academic disciplines, comprise and enrich the expansive categories of both ethics and culture. Resonant with our university’s own mission statement, the University of Notre Dame—and the dCEC both in and as the University of Notre Dame—understands itself, precisely in virtue of its Catholic identity, to be “committed to constructive and critical engagement with the whole of human culture,” not “Catholic culture” narrowly conceived: “No genuine search for the truth in the human or the cosmic order,” after all, “is alien to the life of faith.”

Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the Apostolic Constitution on Catholic Universities, extols the virtues of Catholic institutions of higher learning that are primarily dedicated to research and to excellent pedagogy characterized by “students who freely associate with their teachers in a common love of knowledge” (§1). The research and scholarship pursued within the context of Catholic institutions of higher learning, both globally and within their particular centers, institutes, departments, and programs, ought to be characterized by a particular excellence, bravery, care, and distinction because of its embrace of what Ex Corde Ecclesiae has called Catholicism’s “kind of universal humanism.” By means of this broad vision, “a Catholic University is completely dedicated to the research of all aspects of truth in their essential connection with the supreme Truth, who is God. It does this without fear but rather with enthusiasm, dedicating itself to every path of knowledge…” (§4).

In short, there is not and ought not and could not be any opposition, either natural or imputed, between the faithful embrace of Catholic identity and mission and serious intellectual and academic work. 

Notre Dame and Academic Excellence

Nor is there a conflict between Catholic identity and the institutional goal of being recognized as academically elite. To the contrary, Notre Dame’s Catholic identity and mission are its greatest strengths in this regard. To borrow the reductive language of management consulting, in the marketplace of academia, these are Notre Dame’s greatest “brand differentiators.” It is not a coincidence that Notre Dame’s most prominent and accomplished faculty (including many non-Catholic and non-religious colleagues) came or remain here because of the unique community of learning made possible by its Catholic identity, in all its complexity and capaciousness. Similarly, our most highly ranked academic units are those that most strongly support Notre Dame’s Catholic identity (or who still benefit from the reputation of towering intellectual figures from the past—both Catholics and non-Catholics—who did so). 

So, for our part, we are resolved that the de Nicola Center will continue to strive tirelessly for our students, faculty, academic partners, alumni, and on behalf of the Blessed Mother’s university, to provide a living countercultural witness to the seamless integration of and mutually reinforcing relationship between Catholic identity and genuine academic excellence.


Jennifer Newsome Martin, Associate Professor, Program of Liberal Studies and Theology, and Director-Elect, de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture (as of July 1, 2024)  

O. Carter Snead, Charles E. Rice Professor of Law and Director, de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture (2012 to June 30, 2024)

Photo Credit: de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture

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