The tensions of a Catholic university

Author: Kerry Temple ’74

It’s a tension that has animated the University for decades: the push toward the upper echelon of American higher education and the pull of Notre Dame’s Catholic character.

For at least 50 years Notre Dame has sought to be the world’s foremost Catholic university, to bring reason into dialogue with faith, to preserve its Catholic nature while striving to become a top-tier research university.

Can Notre Dame do both? Can it have it both ways? George Bernard Shaw once quipped that “Catholic university” is “a contradiction in terms.” Yet those who have envisioned such a place — an institution of the highest intellectual and scholarly ambitions that equally values moral, ethical, spiritual and religious virtues and action — believe it to be possible and for decades have been shaping that vision and boldly urging the enterprise along.

But the melding of those two aims — each central to Notre Dame’s mission and aspirations — often results in a tug of war. Examples of the push and pull have spiced the campus for years.

The latest manifestation is President Barack Obama’s acceptance of an invitation to speak at Notre Dame’s 2009 commencement exercises and to receive an honorary degree.

The philosophical conflict has not only divided the Notre Dame family but it has been played out in the national media and among Catholics with no connection to the University. Such is the magnitude of Notre Dame’s symbolic presence in the national consciousness and in the minds of American Catholics.

Many believe that hosting the president of the United States is a great institutional honor. And some see Obama’s life story, his contributions and his vision for America as reason to pay tribute. Some point also to the poignancy of America’s first African-American president coming to the home of Father Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, the man perceived historically as the principal architect of the U.S. Civil Rights Act. Notre Dame has a tradition of inviting each sitting president for just such a ceremonial moment, and presidents of both political parties have been similarly welcomed, celebrated and protested.

On the other hand, many have voiced strong objections to the invitation because of those presidential positions that run counter to fundamental tenets of the Catholic faith — right-to-life issues at the core of Catholic teaching. Inviting President Obama to speak here is one thing, they say; bestowing an honorary degree is another. In doing so, many say, Notre Dame has sought prestige over its Catholic identity.

So go at least the main threads of the debate. The voices have been loud and many. The university has been listening. Websites have lit up. The arguments have landed on cable television and in national newspapers.

We are not interested in continuing that argument here.

The editors of Notre Dame Magazine figure there have been plenty of opportunities and venues for you to enter that discussion. It seems redundant to perpetuate it. But we do believe the commencement controversy is an outward sign of the University’s deeper fundamental tension. That’s where we’d like to take the conversation now.

Are Notre Dame’s aims to become one of the nation’s foremost institutions of higher learning incompatible with its Catholic character?

If intellectual inquiry is the lifeblood of a university, what are the prospects for a university bound — at least in the eyes of many — by adherence to Catholic teaching?

Can Notre Dame have it both ways? Is it even a question of having it both ways? Are the two mutually exclusive? If so, which master should be served when worlds collide? If not, is it possible for Notre Dame people to acknowledge this inherent tension and live with its uneasy alliance?

These are the questions we’d like you to consider here. We won’t post those comments that dwell on commencement 2009. We’re moving on from that. But these other questions deserve an open, reasonable, thoughtful and discerning conversation.

Kerry Temple is editor of Notre Dame Magazine.