Secularization at Notre Dame

The fading of the Catholic presence on the Notre Dame faculty is the most important issue bearing on the increasing secularization of the school.

History demonstrates that the secularization of a religious college or university is the product of the secularization of the faculty. While the outward signs of religious practice typically continue well after the faculty has been transformed, in the end only traces of that religious identity remain. (See Faculty.)

With the secularization of the faculty comes the weakening of a core curriculum characteristic of a Catholic school. (See Curriculum.)

These deficits are especially damaging because of the flimsy foundation of so many high school graduates in attachment to and knowledge of the Church and its teachings. Notre Dame students are no exception. And the measurable results of four years at Notre Dame are disheartening. (See Student Experience.)

Two defining moments under the present administration were Father Jenkins’s approval of The Vagina Monologues and the university’s honoring of President Obama, the Church’s most formidable adversary on abortion and religious liberty. We discuss those events as well as others symptomatic of Notre Dame’s waning Catholic identity in The Vagina Monologues, Academic Freedom, and Other Indicators sections.

Fortunately, just as there remain a significant number of fine Catholic scholars as well as non-Catholics supportive of the school’s Catholic mission who can provide a fine Catholic education to students who seek it, so too there are a number of vibrantly Catholic student organizations in which faithful Catholic students can enrich their lives in many ways. (See Student Groups.)

At Notre Dame, this process of faculty secularization is well underway. Indeed, the shrinking of the Catholic proportion of the faculty has proceeded so far that Notre Dame can no longer lay claim to the robust Catholic character of its past and to which it continues to aspire. While Notre Dame’s Mission Statement declares that the school’s Catholic identity “depends upon” the presence of a solid majority of Catholics on the faculty, only a slender majority of the today’s faculty call themselves Catholic. And when that number is reduced to account for merely nominal and dissenting Catholics, it slumps well below 50%.

It is this attenuation of the Catholic character of the faculty that accounts for such symptoms of secularization as the approval of The Vagina Monologues and the homosexual/lesbian film festival, the promotion by a women’s faculty organization of a host of pro-abortion organizations and the hiring of more lesbians and homosexuals, the award of spousal benefits to same-sex “married” employees and students, the appointment of abortion supporters as trustees, and the other signs of secularization that we identify in this web site. Prominent now among these signs is the enthusiastic support accorded by a large majority of the faculty to the University’s honoring of President Obama at the price of a major disjuncture between Church and Notre Dame and the disaffection of countless numbers of alumni and other Catholics everywhere.

The future of Notre Dame as a Catholic institution, then, depends upon a decisive reversal of the hiring policy of recent decades. The barrier is the faculty, to which hiring has in recent years been largely committed, for a solid majority believe hiring should be based primarily, if not exclusively, on secular values. As the Faculty Senate put it last year: “The University should not compromise its academic aspirations in its efforts to maintain its Catholic identity.” Those “aspirations” now include securing the recognition of Notre Dame by secular academe as a top tier research institution, a goal that is, in the short term, in undeniable tension with according priority to securing the University’s Catholic identity.

The burden of overcoming this faculty resistance is on those in governance, in whom residual authority resides: Father Jenkins, the Board of Trustees, and the Fellows. Father Jenkins has spoken eloquently of a Catholic Notre Dame. He and the Provost have acknowledged the gravity of the hiring problem and have taken steps that they hope will alleviate that problem. Unfortunately, they have undermined these efforts by setting an annual hiring goal that falls far short of what is necessary even to maintain the present slim arithmetical Catholic majority. Presumably a largely ill-disposed faculty can be counted on to do no better than the suggested minimum, if that, over the long run. That is a recipe for the end of a Catholic Notre Dame as it has been known since its founding.