Wanted: Catholic scholars

Author: John Nagy ’00M.A.

Why don’t more Catholic scholars apply for faculty positions at Notre Dame?

A Notre Dame student asked historian Brad Gregory that question after a talk last year, and the associate professor recalls going straight, though affably, to the point.

“Because,” Gregory said, “students like you at Notre Dame decide to go to law school or medical school or business school. You guys are the ones who, in numbers, are going to have to commit to scholarship not only as a career but for broader reasons such as serving the faith and a commitment to the truth, to knowledge and the Church.”

The student’s question and Gregory’s answer stand at the heart of an identity crisis resounding throughout Catholic higher education. The University’s mission statement acknowledges “the continuing presence of a predominant number of Catholic intellectuals” as fundamental to its identity. But when it comes to hiring time, Catholic faith and distinguished scholarship don’t often mix in sufficient numbers.

Enter the University’s Erasmus Institute, which this summer launched what Gregory and the Institute’s director, Father Robert Sullivan, hope is the first of many sets of seminars to address what Sullivan calls “a pipeline problem” in Catholic scholarship.

Each of the two seminars acquainted a dozen bright undergraduates from Notre Dame and other prestigious schools with the Church’s intellectual heritage. The morning classes and afternoon discussions encouraged them to set off on a life of asking the Big Questions at the nexus of faith and reason—questions about meaning, value, purpose and truth—not just in theology or philosophy, but across the humanities and social sciences.

One measure of the pipeline problem comes from the Office of Institutional Research. Only 5 percent of Domers who finished their baccalaureate degrees from 1987 to 1996 earned a Ph.D. between 1992 and 2001, a percentage slightly over half that of other leading research universities.

Sullivan points to the U.S. Supreme Court as an illustration and a challenge. “Apart from partisan politics,” he explains, “there are five Catholic justices on the Supreme Court. Obviously, they have different views: No one is going to confuse Kennedy with Scalia. But they are very able people in the legal profession. If we had such proportionate representation in the academy, the future of Notre Dame and the future of other Catholic institutions of higher education wouldn’t be in doubt. The problem is that we are under-represented, not because of a lack of ability or education, but a sense that this isn’t really an appropriate vocation for Catholics.”

One symptom of the problem that the seminars seek to remedy is a lack of modeling from one generation of Catholic intellectuals to the next. Gregory, a practicing Catholic and award-winning scholar of the Reformation, left a tenured position at Stanford in 2003 for the opportunity to teach at Notre Dame. He believes the University has a leading role to play in furnishing future generations of academics for Notre Dame as well as other Catholic colleges and universities.

“We have a disproportionate number of really bright Catholic undergraduates right under our noses,” he says. “Our hope is that we can inspire, persuade, be role models and convince some students to consider academia as a career.”

Gregory oversaw a seminar in which students discussed with eight prominent Notre Dame professors the intellectual trends in their disciplines—literature, philosophy, political science, economics, anthropology, psychology, law and history—and their interface with Catholic scholarship and faith.

Joseph Wawrykow, an associate professor of theology who specializes in Aquinas, led “Catholic Intellectual Traditions,” which examined the relationship between faith and the life of the mind through discussions of texts ranging from Augustine, Aquinas and Bonaventure to Cardinal Newman and Pope John Paul II.

Dianne Phillips, the institute’s associate director, said the seminars fostered an almost instant collegiality, evident in the long lunches with seminar faculty and staff, in the students’ course evaluations, in their late-night ruminations about God with doctoral candidates Mary Hirschfeld and Scott Moringiello, and in their talk of an informal reunion next Easter in Rome.

“One of the happy outcomes was that there seemed to be strong friendships based on a real admiration for each other as decent, thinking people,” Phillips said.

Six of the 24 participants attend Notre Dame; the others came from such schools as Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Princeton, Swarthmore and Seton Hall. Sullivan says he hopes the students’ positive feedback will encourage like-minded friends from these and similar schools to attend future sessions while Erasmus seeks long-term funding for the project.