The Mission

Author: John Jenkins, CSC, ’76, ’78M.A.


As a Catholic university, Notre Dame recognizes that it arises “from the heart of the Church"—_ex corde ecclesiae_—and service to the Church is central to its mission. As a Catholic university, we serve the Church in a particular way. This service is multidimensional. It includes the education of students; the advancement of knowledge through research; fostering the integrative role of theology and continuing reflection on faith and reason; and discussion of ethical issues that arise in each discipline.

Our distinctive Catholic mission has at least three dimensions. The first has to do with the nature and purpose of education itself. Catholic universities embrace an understanding of education expressed in the Greek word paideia. In the ancient Hellenic world, such an education consisted not only in the acquisition of knowledge and certain technical and professional skills but also in the formation of moral character, which would include the virtues needed to govern oneself and to flourish in society. With the advent of Christianity this understanding of education was embraced, but the virtues that were to be passed on included specifically Christian virtues of faith, hope and love. In American Catholic universities and at Notre Dame in particular, the education we offer undergraduates is guided by this ideal of paideia. Our effort is to pass on not only knowledge but to cultivate moral and religious virtues in our students.

Lawrence H. Summers, in his installation address as Harvard’s president, said, “The university is open to all ideas, but it is committed to the skepticism that is the hallmark of education.” Because at a Catholic university we are heirs to an understanding of reason that is not only critical but open to the transcendent, one in which faith can exist in harmony with reason in the search for understanding and the quest for human fulfillment, we can strive to make the hallmark of a Notre Dame education something broader and richer.

A second dimension of our distinctive Catholic mission can be seen in the emphasis we give to certain areas of research and the contribution we seek to make to the intellectual life of the wider culture. At a Catholic university, theology is a focal point because its reflection is on God, who is the source and end of all things. Even outside of theology, a vast, living and specifically Catholic cultural and intellectual achievement must be studied and taught in a Catholic university. Moreover, in the philosophy of religion, religious history, sociology of religion, business ethics, sacred music and architecture, peace studies, religion and politics, environmental studies and research on diseases that afflict poor nations, as well as many other areas, we try to emphasize those areas where the religious and ethical commitments of the University are highlighted. In an academic world where one often detects an axiomatic secularism and a selective moral neutrality, we strive to offer another perspective.

A third and final dimension of our Catholic mission is in our commitment to serve the Catholic Church. The University is incorporated under a group of fellows who are trustees with a special responsibility for guarding the Catholic mission of Notre Dame, along with the full board of trustees. Under this two-level board, the University is autonomous in its governance, yet it recognizes that part of its mission is to serve the Catholic Church.

Catholics believe that the Church is a community which finds its origin in Jesus Christ and his apostles, is enlivened by the Holy Spirit, and exists for the proclamation of the Gospel message and the sanctification of people. It is difficult to explain such a rich notion in a few words, but it means at least that, for Catholics, the Church is the context in which Christian faith and culture, Christian identity, cease to be simply objects of speculation and controversy and become human and concrete. The Church is an institutional reality, but for Catholics it is also a theological and a mystical reality, the body of Christ living in time. Because the living Church needs to think and reflect and remember, it relies for its intellectual sustenance on Catholic universities as places of teaching, learning and inquiry. There is, I believe, no university in the world that is better able to serve the Church than Notre Dame, and it is part of our mission to do so.

The Catholic Church, an institution of more than a billion people around the world, needs a university that can pass on its intellectual tradition, educate some of its future leaders, discuss and debate the issues which face it, and assist its various efforts and organizations. Notre Dame does this in many ways, globally and domestically. It has, for example, a superb theology department that contributes powerfully to the Church’s thinking. The Master of Divinity program in our theology department trains seminarians and lay and religious ministers for service in the Church. The Institute for Church Life has been a tremendous resource for the Church in many ways, with seminars on campus for bishops and Church leaders, and with the Satellite Theological Education Program, an innovative distance learning program for pastoral ministers and adult Catholics around the country. Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies has joined with Catholic Relief Services to co-found The Catholic Peacebuilding Network, which brings together clergy and lay peace-builders, scholars and practitioners, to facilitate learning from best practices in locations as varied as the Philippines, Burundi and Colombia.

The Alliance for Catholic Education prepares teachers to work in Catholic schools, and the Institute for Educational Initiatives offers support for and reflection on the work of those schools. The Mendoza College of Business has provided for more than 50 years a master’s degree in nonprofit administration, which has primarily served those who administer religious institutions, and it offers a special six-day program for leaders in Catholic Charities, a Catholic organization that serves those in greatest need. And the Program in Sacred Music produces liturgical musicians for churches. In these and many other ways Notre Dame does and will continue to contribute to the life and work of the Catholic Church.

These are, then, three dimensions of our Catholic mission that help define our work: a distinctive moral and spiritual education or paideia; research that arises from the moral and religious character of the University; and service to the Catholic Church. Special distinctions and advantages come from our Catholic identity, but they don’t come automatically, and they don’t come without a corresponding commitment on our part. The advantages come only as we pursue the Catholic mission that distinguishes the work of the University and sets us—in some ways—on a different course from most other universities. Of course, our distinctive character also presents us with challenges not faced by other universities.

We can succeed in advancing these aspects of the University’s mission only if we have, among our faculty, a critical number of devoted followers of the Catholic faith. Such faculty members have a contribution to make in passing on the Church’s moral and intellectual tradition, in reflecting on issues of religious belief and in embracing, as Catholics, a special vocation to serve their Church. I am not saying that such Catholics are better or smarter or more gifted in pursuing the specific academic aims of our University. This is not the case, and it is not my claim. I am saying that high numbers of Catholic faculty members who are active in the faith are indispensable to this University if we are to be successful in fulfilling our mission. For this reason we have sought and will continue to seek a preponderance of faculty at the University who are Catholic. Consequently, we must remain vigilant about the percentage of new hires who are Catholic, devise strategies to attract superb Catholic scholars and explain why we do so.

At the same time, I want to say something that is obvious but may perhaps need more emphasis: Faculty members who are not Catholic are indispensable to the life and success of Notre Dame—in promoting scholarship, in building community, in provoking debate, in pushing for excellence, in ensuring a diversity of perspectives. Non-Catholic faculty do exceptional work in teaching, research and administration. They make us a better university. They also make us a better Catholic university, for they enrich our understanding of God, who is all-inclusive, and our conversations about faith.

The non-Catholic Christian colleagues among us make possible a richer ecumenical dialogue, which works toward Christian unity. As Pope John Paul II said, ecumenism, or the promotion of Christian cooperation and unity, must be the concern of every faithful Catholic. It also must be an integral part of the work of Notre Dame. Our Jewish colleagues help us make what has been a painful history into a constructive dialogue—helping to create mutual understanding with “our elder brothers and sisters in faith.” Our Muslim colleagues make possible greater understanding of and discussions with another great Abrahamic faith at a time when such understanding is badly needed. Our Hindu colleagues, Buddhist colleagues and those of other religious traditions make possible conversations about different quests for the Absolute, which can teach us much about the world and ourselves. And our colleagues who neither embrace religion nor believe in God can help us enhance our dialogue with the significant number of the world’s people who have no particular religious tradition.

As globalization shrinks the world and as religious tensions mount, Notre Dame must be a university that can help people of different faiths and belief systems understand and respect one another. If Notre Dame is to be a force for understanding and healing in a fractured world, we must not only foster dialogue among people of different faiths but also between people who seek truth in God and religion and those who seek it elsewhere.

This is why I believe that every member of our faculty, Catholic or not, can contribute to the religious mission of this University. I am particularly grateful to and inspired by the many non-Catholics who take the mission of Notre Dame to heart and assist in it. A special spirit of generosity is required to play an active role in an institution that is committed to a religious tradition that is not their own.

Beyond these various dimensions of Notre Dame’s Catholic mission, one more dimension is also central to all we do here. This aspect of our mission does not put us on a different course from our secular peers; it puts us in competition with them. For I believe our Catholic identity is not only compatible with striving for the highest levels of academic excellence, it compels it.

If Notre Dame is to be a great force for good, if we are to educate the leaders of the future, if we are to help shape the debates of our day, if we are to serve the Catholic Church, we must aspire to the highest levels of academic excellence. As Father Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, said, piety is not a substitute for scholarship. We will attract the top students and faculty we want only if they are not forced to sacrifice academic quality to participate in the distinctive mission of Notre Dame. We will take fullest advantage of Notre Dame’s special opportunity to enlighten, serve, discover, inspire and heal—only if we commit ourselves to scholarly excellence.

The challenge for Notre Dame in coming years is complex. We must preserve a unique and beloved heritage, advance the University academically and fulfill in an even richer way our distinctive Catholic mission. We cannot meet this challenge unless we choose—in all the many guises in which this choice will be offered—the more ambitious, more challenging path over a safer, more comfortable, more familiar one.

If we choose the easier path, we can be a very fine, very beloved university that does significant good in society, but we will be a university that has retreated from its chance to play a special role in the world. If we choose the more difficult path, we will answer the call to play a critical role in serving the Church, the nation and the world in the 21st century.

Throughout its history, the University of Notre Dame has faced other choices about its role in the world. At the start of the 20th century, the University had paid off the large debt that its founder, Father Edward Sorin, CSC, accumulated in founding the school and was well established as an educational institution. At that time, it accepted students from grade school through college. The question was no longer whether the University would survive but what kind of school it should be.

One camp in a vigorous debate over the future of Notre Dame centered around Father Andrew Morrissey, CSC, who became president of Notre Dame in 1893 and served in that capacity for 12 years. Morrissey did not believe that the Catholic population of the United States would support a serious university, and he wanted Notre Dame to be primarily a college preparatory high school with a small college attached.

An alternative view was held by a group that was led by Father John Zahm, CSC. Zahm was a remarkable man. Well ahead of his time, he wrote a book arguing for the compatibility of Catholic doctrine and the theory of evolution, and another on women in science. He believed that Notre Dame’s destiny was to be a great university like the great German universities of that time. As Provincial of the Holy Cross priests, he controlled the budget, and in this role he allocated funds for Notre Dame’s first art gallery and for a library and the books to fill it.

In the early part of the 20th century, Morrissey got the upper hand in this dispute. As president of the University, he used his influence to remove Zahm as provincial. (Holy Cross priests get into disputes from time to time.) Yet during his service as provincial, Zahm had inspired in a group of younger Holy Cross religious his zeal for higher education, and he sent them off to get graduate degrees. He sent Father Julius Nieuwland, CSC, eventually the discoverer of synthetic rubber, to pursue a doctoral degree in chemistry at Catholic University.

Another of Zahm’s protégés, Father James A. Burns, CSC, served as president from 1919 to 1922, and, despite his brief tenure, was one of the University’s most effective leaders. He studied what the best non-Catholic colleges were doing and wrote several books on education. Under his leadership, the preparatory high school was closed, and resources and energy were focused on the college. Burns formed a lay board of trustees and began the University’s first comprehensive fund drive. He established deans in the colleges and chairs in each of the departments. He hired the strongest faculty he could, and in 1921 he boasted in a letter to a friend, “we have a [faculty member] who devotes most of his time to research. . . . My ambition is to have this kind of work going on in every department. But money is necessary, and we have to proceed slowly and patiently.” Under Zahm’s influence, Burns dreamed of Notre Dame as a great research university, and he did all he could to make this dream a reality.

Those who came before us remained true to Notre Dame’s Catholic mission while they strove to enrich it and expand it. They were heirs of the spirit of Father Sorin, for they dreamed big dreams and refused to be intimidated by challenges. As the University faces the challenges and choices ahead, we must do the same. Maintaining and even deepening our fidelity to our Catholic mission, we must excel in training the minds of our students, cultivating the convictions of their hearts and seeking pre-eminence as a research university. Only in this way can we be the unifying, healing, enlightening place we are called to be, and fulfill the hopes so many have for this University.

Father Jenkins is president of Notre Dame. This article was adapted from his address to the faculty in September 2006.