The Pope vs. The Professors

NOTRE DAME, IN – The Pope celebrates Catholic identity; Notre Dame’s Mission Statement requires it; the Notre Dame Faculty Senate sidelines it.

“The University should not compromise its academic aspirations in its efforts to maintain its Catholic identity.” Notre Dame Faculty Senate, April 9, 2008

On April 17, 2008, the Pope, in his address to Catholic educators, described a Catholic university in terms of the fullness of its Catholic identity.

The day before, the Notre Dame Faculty Senate urged that the University’s “academic aspirations” take precedence over its Catholic identity.

This startling disjuncture evidences both the degree to which secularization has already taken hold at Notre Dame and also the grave risk that this process will continue until the University’s claim to Catholic identity has been entirely undermined.

The Pope’s Address to educators
The Pope delivered a pastoral address that was warmly received. He chose not to discuss any of the particular issues that have troubled some educators. Rather, he held up a radiant image of a truly Catholic university as the proper goal for all Catholic institutions.

The address has been comprehensively reported, and we need not replicate that coverage. The text itself is its own best guide (link above).

We recommend in particular the National Catholic Reporter’s overview and the commentary of George Weigel.

We will, however, discuss certain elements of the address pertinent to issues that have arisen at Notre Dame.

We defer to our next newsletter an analysis of the Pope’s address in relation to the Vagina Monologues controversy. Here, we describe the collision between the recent statement of Notre Dame’s Faculty Senate (the “Senate”), on the one hand, and both the Pope’s address and Notre Dame’s Mission Statement, on the other.

Both the Pope and the University’s constitutive documents describe a university in which faith and reason together infuse the life of the institution. Thus, for example:

The Pope: The Catholic identity of a university demands “that each and every aspect of your learning communities reverberates with the ecclesial life of faith.” Notre Dame’s Mission Statement: “A Catholic university draws its basic inspiration from Jesus Christ as the source of wisdom and from the conviction that in him all things can be brought to their completion.”

To this end, the Mission Statement declares: “The Catholic identity of the University depends upon, and is nurtured by, the continuing presence of a predominant number of Catholic intellectuals” on the faculty.

We have repeatedly described how this essential foundation of Catholic identity has been seriously eroded. All agree that under the Mission Statement a majority of genuinely committed Catholics is required. Yet, the proportion of Catholics has declined from 85% in the 1970’s to about 52% today. Worse, with a reduction to account for dissident and nominal Catholics, there is no longer a faculty sufficiently Catholic to sustain the school’s historic claim to Catholic identity. The Mission Statement tells us so. And still worse, as we have shown, the Administration’s new goal of hiring 50-plus percent Catholics is a recipe for turning Catholics into a permanent minority. The demographics of an aging and rapidly retiring Catholic cohort tell us so. (see, New Faculty Hiring Policy).

The Senate statement, to which we now turn, is striking evidence of the attenuation of Catholic identity that has already occurred as well as a portent of more to come.

The Faculty Senate Statement
The Senate is elected to represent the faculty “in the formulation of policy affecting the entire life of the University.” Its “Response to University’s Initiative on Hiring Catholic Faculty” was directed at statements of Father Jenkins and Provost Burish respecting Catholic identity and the Mission Statement.

The Faculty Senate opened by describing how it had canvassed faculty opinion in order to “speak for the entire faculty.” It then proceeded to urge the demotion of Catholic identity to secondary, even tertiary, importance. Concomitantly, it disparaged the Mission Statement requirement of a majority of Catholic faculty and even the Administration’s inadequate 50-plus percent hiring goal.

The statement is animated principally by a driving ambition for recognition of Notre Dame as a top-tier research university. An important subtext is the aim that the University’s “commitment to racial, ethnic, gender, and religious diversity” take precedence over hiring Catholics. There is, the Senate warns, “widespread concern among the faculty that too narrow a focus upon Catholic hiring will seriously jeopardize our chances of achieving [these] other two goals.”

Still, the Senate says reassuringly, “[T]here is no reason why Notre Dame cannot…remain a Catholic university.” All that is necessary is to move the goal post, so to speak, by repealing the mission statement requirement of a Catholic faculty majority. Thus, the Senate asserts, while “the number of Catholic faculty is a significant component…of the Catholic character of the University,” it is “not the primary determinant.” It is necessary only that there be a “significant presence” of Catholic intellectuals.” Accordingly, the administration “should not impose numerical targets.”

What this all amounts to is summarized in the Senate’s jarring first recommendation:

“The University should not compromise its academic aspirations in its efforts to maintain its Catholic identity.”

A faculty in which committed Catholics predominated surely would invert this declaration to read:

“The University should not compromise its Catholic identity in its efforts to achieve its academic aspirations.”

And while the Senate doubtless did not speak for every faculty member – 500 of some 800 faculty members responded to its questionnaire, and surely they were not of a single mind – the Senate’s statement does correspond with the results of a 2003 study by Baylor scholars that we have previously described. There, a solid majority of the faculty opposed taking religion into account in hiring.

Conclusion: Of course diversity is important, and seeking top-tier research status may be a worthy goal as well, though not all would agree. But the soul of Notre Dame is its Catholic identity; that identity is in jeopardy; and once lost it would never be regained. A secularized faculty would stand in the way. In contrast, improving diversity and academic standing are long-term goals that, if affected at all, would not be foreclosed by according priority to the most urgent need, shoring up Catholic identity.

Nevertheless, the Senate has proposed offering up a Catholic Notre Dame as the price of admission to the inner circle of secular universities. Surely the Senate does not expect those in governance to embrace this policy. What it may hope for is silence or a muffled reaction that pronounces all goals as important and assigns no priorities. Such a mixed-signal environment, together with the existing inadequate hiring goal, is an open invitation to the further weakening of Catholic identity.

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