Law professor says Catholic Identity is a question of will

NOTRE DAME, IN – Professor Emeritus Charles Rice describes the erosion of Catholic identity accompanying Notre Dame’s drive for top ranking as a research university.

In a recent essay in The Observer, Law School Professor Emeritus Charles Rice examines several troublesome by-products of the University’s drive to be recognized as a top tier research institution. All of them – for example, a “diminished emphasis on undergrad teaching” – are of interest. In terms of Catholic identity, the truly alarming consequence is the “decrease of Catholic faculty” already experienced and to be anticipated.

Before introducing Professor Rice’s essay, we briefly describe as background several of the key factors we have analyzed at length in prior newsletters.

  • When the present slender 53% arithmetical Catholic faculty majority is discounted to account for nominal and dissident Catholics, there is no longer the majority of committed Catholics that the Mission Statement declares to be necessary to the school’s Catholic identity.
  • After the Faculty Senate canvassed the faculty last year about the relative importance of hiring in order to “enhance Catholic character,” on the one hand, and, on the other, in order to “mov[e] into the first rank of research institutions,” the Senate came down decisively on the side of secular acclaim. Here is the first Faculty Senate recommendation: “The University should not compromise its academic aspirations in its efforts to maintain its Catholic identity.”
  • The Administration has set a goal of hiring Catholics at a mere 50.1%, far less than adequate even to maintain the unsatisfactory status quo because of the very high proportion of Catholics among retirees.
  • But the Faculty Senate opposed even this substandard goal. The Senate acknowledged the desirability only of a “significant presence” of Catholic faculty. So much for the Mission Statement’s requirement of Catholic faculty “predominance.”
  • Finally, evidently in response to the Senate’s apprehension that efforts to “enhance Catholic identity” would impair not only “academic aspirations” but also “diversity,” Father Jenkins, in his 2008 address to the faculty, stressed “commitment to diversity, specifically to recruiting ethnic minorities and women as faculty members.”

In these circumstances, while the increased attention that the Administration has paid to Catholic hiring is welcome, and while temporary interludes in the downward spiral of Catholic representation may be anticipated to occur under Father Jenkins as they have during prior Administrations, the long-term outlook for restoration of the Catholic identity demanded by the Mission Statement looks bleak absent a major change in hiring policies.

Ultimate responsibility and authority for insuring such a change resides in those in governance: the Fellows, the Board, and the Administration. The essential first step is according priority to hiring sufficient numbers of qualified Catholics to meet the Mission Statement requirement.

This might well be all that is necessary. But in the unlikely event that a department were simply unwilling to follow such a policy, the President could, as Professor Rice observes, simply withhold approval of one or more of that department’s nominees to induce further efforts to attract qualified Catholic candidates.

This would not mean scrapping the worthy goal of increasing diversity or the perhaps more debatable goal of being admitted to the top rank of research universities. It might, to be sure, mean a slower pace toward those goals. And there would, obviously, be faculty objection. But the alternative is the loss forever of Notre Dame’s historic claim as a truly Catholic institution, for history teaches that there is a point of no return along the secularization continuum.

As Professor Rice says, “It is a question of will.”

And now, Professor Rice.


By Charles Rice

Three decades ago, in 1978, Notre Dame proclaimed itself a “Research University.” Notre Dame’s mission had been the provision of affordable education, in the Catholic tradition, to undergrads, with research and graduate education in an important, complementary role….Read full article

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