What Notre Dame Should Fight For


NOTRE DAME, IN — The Irish Rover’s examination of the history of the Notre Dame “What Would You Fight For” football game TV videos shows that Notre Dame “fights for” good things that everyone else does too, but not for anything that secular schools would not. That is, not for anything that would mark Notre Dame as a Catholic university different from its secular “peers.”

There is increasingly reason to recall with disappointment the unrealized hope raised by Father Jenkins’s inaugural address pledge:

In this age especially, we at Notre Dame must have the courage to be who we are. If we are afraid to be different from the world, how can we make a difference in the world?

In three recent bulletins we discussed how Notre Dame’s drive to be thought the equal of the nation’s top secular universities threatens its Catholic identity. The most important impact has been the dramatic reduction in Catholic faculty, but these bulletins show how the effects are  pervasive.

In the first, we brought you George Weigel’s commentary on the overall secularizing effect of this phenomenon.  “Rather than aiming to be like the ‘preferred peers,'” he asked, “why shouldn’t a proudly Catholic university like Notre Dame set a new standard of excellence, based on the Catholic tradition of integrated learning and integral human formation?”

In the second, we discussed the threat to reduce the theology course requirements, which  Dr, Cyril O’Regan’s traced to the administration’s misshapen concept of a great university.

Greatness lies in the confidence of who you are and the proud resistance to be other than who you are, the incapacity to be shamed into thinking that you become truly first class by making yourself more like the ones who are the holders of worth and prestige.

(We are pleased to tell you that the curriculum review committee did not recommended this change in its just-released report. Faculty opposition and public criticism like ours was intense.)

And in the third bulletin, we reported on the administration’s ill-conceived plan to partner with a Chinese government university in a liberal arts college notwithstanding China’s ban of the Church, its imprisonment of priests and nuns, its silencing of human rights advocates, and its campaign against “western values” in schools.  Opposed by many faculty, this project shows the price the administration seems willing to pay for matching, indeed outdoing, its peers in the China competition.

We turn now to the image Notre Dame creates for its largest audience by far, the viewers of Notre Dame football games. Tim Bradley, the editor-in-chief of the Irish Rover, examined this question in a recent editorial. We reproduce an abridged version below, but you will do well to read it in full.

What Should We Fight For?

By Tim Bradley: October 6, 2015

NBC showed a video tribute to the late Father Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, during the Texas game Saturday night.  [This]was the latest in the university’s ongoing “What Would You Fight For?” series.

A scan of the series’ archives reveals that the videos over the last two years tell the world that here at Notre Dame we are fighting: to create economic opportunity; for those touched by cancer; for the ethical use of technology; for global health; to improve trauma care; to explore our universe; to design a better home; to build bridges; for equal education; to protect the sick; to cure prostate cancer.

These are all good things. But I wonder whether Notre Dame is fighting for all that it should fight for.

The list of causes celebrated during the football games is uncontroversial. They would be worth fighting for. But in our world, today, you do not need to. None of these causes require fighting for, because no one would object to the projects Notre Dame is highlighting. Should not America’s flagship Catholic university be fighting for at least a few things which are unpopular, and perhaps deeply countercultural?

[S]ecular universities fight for the same causes which Notre Dame touts. Where is Notre Dame’s distinctively Catholic voice? There are many groups and individuals on this campus devoted to the cause of defending all human life. Why has the crucially important work of these groups not been featured on NBC?

Notre Dame alumnus and former presidential speechwriter Bill McGurn, in a speech delivered on campus in 2009, bemoaned Notre Dame’s lack of public witness to the cause of the unborn: “Imagine the witness that Notre Dame might provide on a fall afternoon, if millions of Americans who had sat down to watch a football game suddenly found themselves face to face with a Notre Dame professor or student standing up to say, ‘I fight for the unborn.'”

Not only has the university not fought for the truth about marriage, it has by its actions obscured the truth about marriage. The university announced last October, absent coercion from any relevant civil law, that it would extend marriage benefits to employees who declared themselves legally married to a person of the same sex.

Such actions are clearly at odds with the encouragement of “a way of living consonant with a Christian community” to which the university claims to be dedicated. Why not provide a public witness to the truth about marriage, out of compassion for that faithful remnant of dedicated married couples who persevere in their commitments, in season and out of season.

If the university did so witness, it would likely present itself as a unique and countercultural institution, offering something that no other (non-Catholic) university could offer. But the message Notre Dame seeks to send (to potential students, potential donors, and others) is not one of distinctness, but one of likeness. As George Weigel has recently noted, Catholic universities such as Notre Dame tend to think these days in terms of “preferred peer” schools.

Notre Dame should aspire to a different kind of excellence and success. Rather than attempting to be just as “good” as our “preferred peers,” we should aim to be different; that would be a real service to our culture.

I suggest that instead of turning for example to the Notre Dame that honored President Obama in 2009, we look instead to Saint Thomas More, who, for standing up for the truth about marriage was executed by order of Henry VIII. Following such an example, Notre Dame might find the courage not only to continue working on the many good projects that have been highlighted in its “What Would You Fight For?” series, but also to fight for other truths of the Catholic faith, which may not be as popular but remain nonetheless true and vital to the good of persons.

“Other truths of the Catholic faith” should include, for example, the crucial matter of freedom of religion. And videos showing what Notre Dame is for, not explicitly what it is against, should not offend.  It would be enough for them to show that Notre Dame is unafraid to be seen not simply as Catholic — images of candles and “Touchdown Jesus” do that — but that it is different because it is Catholic.



The Historical Roots of Notre Dame’s “Peer Schools” Syndrome

The reluctance of those in governance of Notre Dame to be seen as “too Catholic” could perhaps better be thought of as a desire to show that Notre Dame’s Catholicism is in tune with the culture of its secular “peers” and enlightened Americans in general. Viewed that way, Notre Dame is acting today, as it has for decades, as a champion of the Catholic Americanism movement that traces back to the 19th century. The movement and its critics represent the desire to fit in, on the one hand, and the fear of diluting the faith, on the other. The early opposing forces are represented in the writings of Father Isaac Hecker, the founder of the Paulists, and his adversary Orestes Brownson, who thought that the Church “had never encountered a social and political order so hostile” as America’s. Decades later the Americanism forces were led by Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul, Cardinal James Gibbons, and their allies, but the dispute was unresolved. Indeed, In 1899 Pope Leo XIII issued a condemnation of “Americanism” in a letter to Gibbons.The Historical Roots of Notre Dame’s “Peer Schools” Syndrome

The success of the Americanism movement came with public recognition of the efforts of Catholics in the Second World War and the leadership of Catholics in all walks of life. Father Theodore Hesburgh was prominent among them. In his study of the Americanism movement (see below), the prominent Catholic author Russell Shaw characterizes Notre Dame as “the flagship institution in the Americanism movement in Catholic higher education.” The capstone of the movement’s success came with the election of John Kennedy.

But the congruence between the Church and American culture has been disrupted and with it the warrant for full-throated Americanism. Mr. Shaw, in his book “American Church, the Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America,” says:

Gibbons, Ireland, et al., may have been mostly right in their day, but their prescriptions for Americanizing Catholics and their Church are resoundingly wrong in ours… Today’s dominant secular culture is deeply hostile to Catholicism… Continued uncritical Catholic assimilation into the surrounding culture is a destructive course for the Catholic identity of American Catholics.

This comes hard for Notre Dame. It is rich, prominent, widely admired, and more or less accepted by secular academe. To speak up in support of Catholic teaching in opposition to the views held by dominant secular leaders and institutions may put this at risk. But it is what authentic Catholic identity requires.

For those interested in exploring the Americanism movement (and a good deal more), read Mr. Shaw’s book, in which he pays special attention to Notre Dame, and also the splendid biography of Archbishop Ireland by one of Notre Dame’s most distinguished historians (and the biographer of Father Sorin), Father Marvin R. O’Connell: “John Ireland & the American Catholic Church.”

Please Consider Supporting Sycamore Trust

It’s time for our annual report on Notre Dame’s Catholic identity and our year-end request for support. If you’ve followed our bulletins, it will come as no surprise that our near-term outlook for an authentic Catholic renewal at Notre Dame continues to be bleak. As we show in our Report, it can scarcely be otherwise in view of the administration’s gravely deficient policy on hiring Catholic faculty and actions such as its recognition of same-sex marriages for spousal employee and student benefits and its funding a student health program that results in the delivery of free abortifacients and contraceptives to students. But there is good news also, including our new project to assist students hoping to get an authentic Catholic education at Notre Dame.

We invite you to learn more by reading our annual report and consider supporting our mission by including Sycamore Trust in your year-end giving. Click here to continue.

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