The Teacher, The University and Sycamore

In this bulletin, we mark the recent anniversary of the passing of one of Notre Dame’s greatest teachers, scholars and Catholics, Dr. Ralph McInerny, by recounting his mounting distress over the weakening of the Catholic identity of Notre Dame along with his praise of Sycamore Trust. It is indispensable and illuminating, if painful, to see the University through the eyes of one of its longest-serving, most faithful, and most highly respected servants and one of the most illustrious Catholic scholars and laymen of our time.

A little over a year ago we prayed that the angels might lead into paradise the soul of a brilliant and beloved teacher, a Notre Dame legend, and a true son of Holy Mother Church, Dr. Ralph McInerny. In joining the outpouring of tributes to Dr. McInerny, we noted briefly his darkening view of Notre Dame.  The recent anniversary of his death prompts us to describe his outlook more fully. The judgment of this storied Notre Dame teacher, scholar, and author, “one of the giants of Catholicism of our time,” deserves close attention.

First, however, we alert you to a feature appearing in this bulletin for the first time: “End Notes.”  It is for significant items that can be dealt with briefly. We suggest you always take a look.

We begin our report on Dr. McInerny’s concern about Notre Dame with his engaging autobiography I Alone Have Escaped to Tell You, in which his description of the transformation of the philosophy department is particularly telling.  He wrote of the professor who “announced in a departmental meeting that, since he regarded Catholicism as false, he had a moral obligation

to disabuse his students of their faith.” More broadly, Dr. McInerny deplored the near demise of scholastic philosophy:

Our departments of philosophy now have a majority of members for whom what I have been saying would be as unintelligible as it doubtless would be at Meatball Tech.

Dr. McInerny’s association with Sycamore Trust began in 2005 as a member of a panel discussing the “Vagina Monologues” controversy at Notre Dame. The alumni who had organized the panel established Sycamore Trust shortly thereafter.

Dr. McInerny later told the story:

The trigger for [Sycamore Trust] was the incredible waffling of Father Jenkins about, and ultimate allowing of, campus presentations of the infamous and pornographic play The Vagina Monologues.

“The very title,” he continued, “is an affront.”

That such a patent effort to corrupt the young and to trash common morality, to say nothing of the enforcement and enlargement of that morality by Catholic moral teaching, should not require five minutes of reflection before being dismissed.

Dr. McInerny and other faculty panelists pointed to the radical reduction of Catholic representation on the faculty as the cause of incidents like The Vagina Monologues, and this set us on the course we have followed ever since. As Dr. McInerny put it:

The [Vagina Monologues] controversy brought to the surface the disturbing fact that a significant number of Notre Dame faculty are pleased as punch at the showing of the Monologues.

He continued by summarizing Sycamore’s analysis of the faculty issue:

This led Sycamore to examine the alarming drop in the percentage of Catholics on the faculty, now hovering around 50 percent. To its credit, the Administration too is concerned about this . . . . [But] the plan to remedy this that was proposed by the university revealed, upon analysis by Sycamore, that, far from meeting the problem, it would exacerbate it.”

That analysis, Dr. McInerny concluded (to our considerable satisfaction), “is a model of the incisive comments one has learned to expect from Sycamore.”

He added, “They are not trying to score points against Father Jenkins” but rather “are appealing to his undoubted intelligence and good will.” Still, Dr. McInerny observed, “The administration would be less than human if they did not wish that Project Sycamore would just go away,” for “what can one do with a group that does not accuse you of malice but rather exhibits the naïveté and ineffectiveness of your actions?”

In other essays (“A House Divided,” “Is Obama Worth a Mass?”  “Mammon and Uniquity,” and “A Dickens of a Christmas“) Dr. McInerny deplored other aspects of Notre Dame’s “freefall into secularism:”

  • “To take Ivy League schools as models of what we should be is having predictable results.”
  • “What the times require is not for Catholic universities to become more like their chaotic secular counterparts, but to recover and celebrate the great tradition in which they stand,”
  • “It is melancholy to have lived into a time when Notre Dame describes itself primarily as ‘a great research institution.’ . . . A liberal education is far more a matter of catching up with the past then regarding it as in need of premature efforts to supplant it.”
  • “The adoption of the corporate model is distressing.”
  • “The dollar sign seems to hover over the campus like the Goodyear Blimp.”
  • “Several members of the university’s governing board are heads of companies whose activities are, to put it gently, at odds with Notre Dame’s stated mission. . . . [Sycamore Trust’s] queries about these anomalies have been ignored by the university.”

Dr. McInerny passionately denounced the honoring of President Obama. Calling it a “deliberate thumbing of the collective nose at the Roman Catholic Church,” Dr. McInerny saw the university’s action as “in sad continuity with decades of waffling.”  He dismissed the university’s pro-life professions as “lip service” that was “no impediment to the truly vulgar lust to be welcomed into secular society.”

“Notre Dame,” he concluded, “has forfeited its right to call itself a Catholic university.”

Still, Dr. McInerny did not despair. He declared, “Only a churl would imagine that there is some plan to secularize Notre Dame,” and he saw hope in students. In his book, he celebrated “a renaissance of sorts among undergraduates . . . who cannot accept that education at Notre Dame should be indistinguishable from that at secular universities.” And during the Obama episode it was a determined, if relatively small, group of students “who stood tall, retained clarity of mind, and refused to accept that their Catholicism could be switched off.”

More, Dr. McInerny wrote that the Obama incident “may be providential.” It  “stirred such passionately prayerful reaction from an heroic band of students, from alumni and Catholics across the country, and – mirable dictu – from more than seventy [in fact 83] bishops” that it might trigger an “awakening.”

There has, in fact, been new impetus to the pro-life forces at Notre Dame, as we have observed. And in the following “End Notes,” we take note of broader possible repercussions.

We close this account with a passage in a McInerny essay in which, we are frank to say, we take some pride:

Two extremes of alumni sentiment might be called unquestioning, on the one hand, and carping, on the other. Sycamore [Trust] is a model of calm and reasonable yet unrelenting questioning of recent events on the South Bend campus.


Annual Sycamore Breakfast
Mark your calendar: The annual Sycamore Trust breakfast meeting will be held at Notre Dame on Saturday morning June 4th.

Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan
The election of Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops over Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson was a stunning upset. It was the first time in the history of the modern conference that the incumbent vice president has not succeeded to the presidency. The event was lamented by the National Catholic Reporter as “the end of the Bernadin era.” Fr. Thomas Reese, S.J., former editor of America, called it “an ecclesial earthquake of monumental proportions.” A leading expert on the Conference, Russell Shaw, assigned as one reason the different reactions of the two prelates to Notre Dame’s honoring of President Obama: “Bishop Kicanas merely said bishops and college presidents should sit down and try to work our such things. . . .By contrast, Archbishop Dolan [said] . . . the university sent students the wrong message, specifically, ‘We hold him up as a model to you.’” (Catholic World Report, February 2011 p. 18.)

Implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae
This year each bishop will meet with the heads of Catholic colleges and universities within his jurisdiction to discuss how the institution is complying with the norms adopted by the bishops ten years ago in implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae. The election of Archbishop Dolan might evidence a spirit of increased episcopal concern.   One of the norms is the existence of a Catholic faculty majority, a standard Notre Dame no longer meets, as we have repeatedly pointed out.

O Rare Ralph McInerny 
O Rare Ralph McInerny contains a remarkable collection of stories, reflections, and anecdotes about Ralph McInerny by friends, former students, and a glittering array of the nation’s outstanding scholars (including Sycamore board member Dr. Thomas S. Hibbs). The moving funeral sermon by Dr. Mcinerny’s close friend from seminary days, eminent Notre Dame historian Rev. Marvin O’Connell, is part of the collection. St. Augustine’s Press is donating all proceeds to the Women’s Care Center of St. Joseph County, Indiana.

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