The Heart of the Matter

NOTRE DAME, IN – While manifestations of Catholic life at Notre Dame are abundant, is there a potentially fatal fault line that has opened out of public view?

Let’s begin this discussion with the threshold question whether there is a serious threat to the Catholic identity of Notre Dame. I say there is. The School’s Mission Statement tells us so.

That provision declares that the school’s Catholic identity “depends upon” the “continuing presence” of a “predominant number of Catholic intellectuals.” This means a solid majority, according to the author of the provision, then President Rev. Edward Malloy. Provost Burish reaffirmed this standard in the current issue of the Notre Dame Magazine. It’s significant that this is also the minimum that Pope John Paul II prescribed in Ex Corde Ecclesiae, his explication of the nature of a Catholic University. This focus on faculty reflects the uniform conclusion of experts that the secularization of colleges and universities begins and ends with the faculty. (Resources)

Notre Dame is perilously close to failing the Mission Statement test, if it hasn’t already.

The proportion of Catholics on the faculty has fallen precipitously from 85% in the 1970’s to a bare majority of 53% today. Moreover, this 53% covers all faculty who at some time reported Church affiliation without regard to whether they were, or are, dissenting or merely nominal Catholics. But surely the term “Catholic intellectuals” in the Mission Statement refers to more than formal membership. In the current issue of the Notre Dame Magazine, Provost Burish describes the Catholics who should constitute the “majority” as those “who understand the nature of the religion, who can be living role models, who can talk with students about issues outside the classroom.” If, then, an appropriate discount for nominal and dissenting Catholics is applied, there are not today a “predominant number” of “Catholic intellectuals” on the faculty.

And it is still more worrisome that, as the Provost and Dean Roche have both warned, given the high percentage of Catholics retiring, Catholics will soon be a numerical as well as a real minority unless there is a turnabout in hiring.

How much of a turnabout? Unprecedented, I think it safe to say. We’ve estimated that, simply to maintain the present technical, arithmetical Catholic majority, the recent 40% rate of hiring Catholics must increase to substantially over 60%. During a recent panel discussion at the University, Father Wilson Miscamble put the figure at 67% at least. Whatever the precise number, it seems clear that just edging above 50% won’t do. This raises a number of questions:

What’s more important, Catholic identity or pride of position in the U.S. News & World Report hierarchy?

If the risk to Notre Dame’s Catholic identity is so evident, why don’t more seem concerned?

Should those in governance ensure that the faculty’s latitude in hiring will not trump the Mission Statement?

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