"Why us Catholic campuses aren't very catholic"
By Felipe Fernández-Armesto
With the permission of the Catholic Herald, Great Britain’s leading Catholic publication, we are pleased to bring you an illuminating Catholic Herald article on the state of Catholic education at Notre Dame by Dr. Felipe Fernández-Armesto, the University’s William P. Reynolds Professor of History.
Dr. Fernández-Armesto joined the Notre Dame faculty in 2009 after occupying chairs at Tufts University and the University of London. Previously, he had spent most of his career teaching at Oxford, where he received his undergraduate and graduate degrees. “He has had visiting appointments at many universities and research institutes in Europe and the Americas and has honorary doctorates from La Trobe University and the University of the Andes, Columbia.” For his awards and honors and extensive bibliography, go here.
In his article, while not neglecting Notre Dame’s remaining virtues as a Catholic university, Professor Fernández-Armesto describes how the school’s Catholic identity has faded, the factors responsible, and the challenging times ahead.
The article is full of related and important insights. For example, the crumbling of Catholic primary and secondary education and other factors have resulted in Notre Dame students who are “desperately undercatechized when they arrive;” but, just as the need for Catholic education has increased, Notre Dame’s capacity to provide it has waned with the decline of Catholic faculty to a “bare majority” as “the university seems to have enfeebled formerly unremitting efforts to recruit Catholic intellectuals.”
Fernández-Armesto concludes by describing how the truths of Catholicism could be deployed against the malignant currents that beset school and society, but he holds out scant hope “while the present trajectory in higher education continues.”
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"We need to heal the breach between conservatism and liberalism in education," says Felipe Fernández-Armesto
The world seems torn by a sacred contradiction. “Anyone who is not against us is for us,” said Christ, according to Mark. Luke and Matthew put intransigence into His mouth: “He who is not with me is against me.” In the US we seem to have adopted the intransigent version.
Eclecticism is no longer allowed: you’re a soi-disant liberal, you must aver the whole progressive caboodle, justifying abortions, endorsing capricious “identity” and deferring to the delusions of gender theory. Nor, if you want others to understand your position, can you embrace social and moral conservatism without accepting the evils of madcap capitalism. America’s political deadlock is among the consequences. For Catholics, especially in higher education, where you can hardly blow a kiss without hitting a liberal, the results are convulsive.
My experience at the University of Notre Dame – recognized by everyone, except rivals, as the exemplary Catholic research institution – suggests that Catholic values are doomed to depletion, not only because of relentless secularism but also because political polarization has divided us irreconcilably.
Superficially, US Catholic higher education looks healthy. We have about 250 professedly Catholic institutions. Some are small colleges, without pretensions to great research, such as Christendom College and Thomas Aquinas College, where adherence to the magisterium remains firm. Because ours is the land of the free, we are allowed to have quotas: at least 80 per cent of Notre Dame undergraduates must be Catholics. On feast days, it does the heart good to see thousands of young people streaming to Mass, which on our campus is celebrated hundreds of times every week – and more when we play football at home. We have many priests and religious among our professors and staff, with pastoral care that is the best I have encountered in a lifetime spent in universities.
Students, however, are desperately undercatechized when they arrive. Their grasp of Catholicism often amounts to a vague assertion of social justice, corrupted by eco-shibboleths and the nonsense they learn in some gender-studies classes. The administration has made lamentable concessions to laicist hostility or Laodicean indifference: abandoning opposition to compulsory insurance coverage for contraceptives; allowing university funds to be abused to pay for abortion-advocacy on campus; occluding – and, by the way, damaging – our famous Columbus murals, which celebrate the coming of Christianity to the Americas and the God-given virtues of Native Americans; opening privileged facilities for students who want or claim to want to change sex; and – though Catholic teachers are still a bare majority – the university seems to have enfeebled formerly unremitting efforts to recruit Catholic intellectuals.
The drift discernible at Notre Dame is even more advanced at some other Catholic colleges, especially those formerly run by religious orders that have downgraded or dropped higher education from their charisms. How did the rot start? How has it reached the present pass? Though in Europe the US has the reputation of a religiously exalted country, secularism is stronger than any other faith. It can be comical: a few years ago, parents in Georgia suppressed a school’s football anthem on the grounds that the lyrics of “The Devil Came Down to Georgia” offended the Constitution by “making an establishment of religion.” But it is hard to question the basic assumption – derived, I think, from Protestant and quietist sources – that religion is permissible because it is a private matter, which, however, confers no benefit on the state or society. That is why prayers can be banned from schools and crosses from public monuments, while religious exemptions wither from laws in favour of, for example, abortion or the alienation of Catholic children to irreligious adoptive families. In universities, we face pernicious arguments that we must conform to the ways of the world. We can prate about “Catholic intellectual tradition” but to insist that Catholicism is more – compelling us to reprove sin and confront falsehood and evil – is to provoke embarrassment or enmity.
Many of my colleagues seem more prolific with pronouns than professions of faith. The administration focuses on league tables that we can climb only by getting the approval of secular rivals: to bid for such approval is more than a crime – it is a mistake. Even Notre Dame, which is indecently rich, does not have the resources to compete with Harvard, Stanford or Princeton, say, in providing added value for fee-paying families. Catholicism is not only our bedrock. It is also our brand.
While worldly temptations distract us, heresy undermines us. Leo XIII never managed to argue Americanism into oblivion. The doctrine that US exceptionalism justifies departures from Catholic universality is alive and kicking against the goad. Notre Dame’s greatest president, Fr Ted Hesburgh, apostrophized by his biographer, Fr Bill Miscamble, as the archetypical “American Priest”, was a wonderful uomo universale of unexcelled energy and wisdom. His struggle against episcopal control and the unquestionability of the magisterium was understandable and even commendable. But his success brought unforeseen consequences. Colleagues of mine now teach against the Church and exercise irresponsibly their indefeasible right to freedom – tainting the university’s reputation with the effects of heterodox views on life, ecclesiology and sexuality.
Because we reflect, within the Church and Catholic universities, the bifurcation of US politics and society, we have no prospect of agreeing about the problems we face – let alone how to solve them. Yet Catholicism gives us the means of healing the breach, because truth does not admit the tyranny of left or right. We could put Mark’s emollience before Matthew’s and Luke’s intransigence. We could, for instance, unite on the inviolability of life as the most basic of liberal, as well as of Catholic, principles. We could accommodate in love those for whom the Church’s disciplines are too demanding, while encouraging contrition. We could agree that inclusion and diversity must embrace opinions as well as identities. We could uphold difference as the startingpoint of discussion, instead of its inevitable end. We could abjure politics and retrieve apostleship.
We could – but while the present trajectory in higher education continues, I’m afraid we won’t.
Let no one deceive himself. If any one among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. (1 Cor 3:18-19)
O God our Father, Eternal Wisdom and Love, You have created us in Your own image and likeness, and called us to live in humble obedience to You and according to the order which You have established to govern the universe. You sent Your Son, Wisdom Incarnate, to save us from sin and to reconcile us to You and to one another. He established the Church to be a saving witness of Wisdom and Love, Goodness and Truth to a rebellious world. We implore You to dispel the darkness that surrounds us. May all who have rejected the truths of creation, seeking to replace Your design for the human race with one of their own, be awakened to the destructive folly which passes for wisdom in this age. Enlighten us all by the Truth which sets us free and grant that we may courageously embrace the scorn and contempt of the wise of the world so that we may joyfully share in the Wisdom of God. Through the intercession of Notre Dame, our Mother, we make our prayer in the Name of Jesus, Your Son, Who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, forever and ever. Amen.
The above prayer is by Sycamore Trustee Father John Raphael (’89). To join us in regular prayer projects such as our Novena for Catholic Education and our Meditation on the 12-Days of Christmas, please join our Apostolate.
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