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Rich tradition of faculty priests, nuns at ND, SMC wanes

Maddie Hanna | Friday, January 28, 2005

The number of priests and nuns teaching at Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s has been slowly decreasing in recent years – a trend that applies to other Catholic universities as well.

This year, Notre Dame has 19 Catholic clerics serving as full-time instructional faculty, said Jean Ann Linney, vice president and associate provost.

Ten years ago, that number was 26, according to the Office of Institutional Research.

This statistic does not include clerics who hold administrative positions, such as University President Father Edward Malloy and University President-elect Father John Jenkins, Linney said. And while the percentage of clerical compared to lay faculty has dropped significantly in the past 20 years that does not account for the overall increase in hiring, she added.

The drop in the number of clerics was miniscule compared to the expansion of the faculty in general, Linney said. Twenty years ago, clerics made up 4.9 percent of Notre Dame’s full-time instructional faculty, while last year they made up 2.4 percent, according to data provided by the Office of Institutional Research. The University has gained 253 total faculty members during that time, from 530 to 783.

The hiring of priests, however, has not kept pace with the hiring of lay faculty, Linney said. She speculated among the 25 to 30 faculty members hired per year, on average, only one is a priest.

“I wouldn’t say that it’s any more difficult now [to attract priest-professors] – it’s just that there are so few,” Linney said.

The dwindling ranks of priest-professors can be attributed to the stable or declining number of priests completing seminary, Linney said, as well as to the added task of obtaining a Ph.D.

While Linney could not speak directly about Notre Dame’s recruitment practices, she said the Indiana province of the Holy Cross places emphasis on drawing new seminarians from the student body.

Brother Donald Stabrowski, provost at the University of Portland, a Catholic university in Portland, Ore., said he also had experienced declining numbers of priest-professors.

“There aren’t enough of them [priests],” Stabrowski said. “I would take 10 more if there were.”

According to Stabrowski, there is a decided difference between the number of priest-professors available today and 30 years ago, when it wouldn’t have been unusual for half of the faculty to be clerics.

Stabrowski said he felt recruiting priest-professors was not overly problematic and Portland “gets its fair share.”

But because of nationwide priest shortages, priests are in high demand, Stabrowski said.

“Whenever there is an available priest, we certainly pay close attention,” he said.

Portland, which, along with Notre Dame belongs to the Order of the Holy Cross, has 20 priests and brothers who work as professors or in administration, Stabrowski said. He did not know the exact number of sisters employed, but said there were at least seven in regular positions.

Chester Gillis, chair of Georgetown University’s theology department, also stressed the difficulties in obtaining priest-professors.

“Jesuits and priests, especially with scholarly potentials, are at a premium in recent years,” Gillis said.

Georgetown identifies candidates in graduate school every year in attempts to recruit new priests, with an emphasis on Jesuits since Georgetown is a Jesuit university, Gillis said.

Patrick White, vice president and dean of faculty at Saint Mary’s, said it was difficult to determine if the number of sisters teaching had decreased significantly, because the number has been small for a while.

But the percentage of nuns also serving as professors has clearly declined during the College’s existence, White said. He said this is due to an increase in the number of lay faculty at Saint Mary’s as well as fewer women becoming nuns in general.

“It’s a decrease in the numbers of sisters in the congregation [Sisters of the Holy Cross],” White said. “The growth in the congregation is in Africa, Bangladesh and Brazil – it’s not in the U.S.”

Saint Mary’s, which currently employs six sisters in administration – some of whom also teach – and three in faculty, does recruit sisters, White said.

White said he does believe in some ways recruiting sisters has been more difficult in recent years, primarily because “there are fewer sisters going into teaching and academic life, and because a number of colleges and institutions want these sisters.”

All of the officials agreed upon the importance of having clerics teach at their respective schools.

“There’s clearly a very strong commitment to having a faculty that practices and understands the Catholic mission of this university,” Linney said.

The campus also benefits from the unique approach priests bring to the classroom, she said.

“Their seminary training provides them with a different perspective,” she said. “For a priest who studied history, their perspective on history is going to be different [than a lay professor’s].”

Stabrowski said priest-professors are “crucial” in perpetuating the image of the Holy Cross university.

“They provide continuity to an institution, the history, the memory,” he said. “That is very, very important.”

Gillis, however, focused on the more “concrete contact” aspect of having priests as teachers. He said the greater the presence of Jesuits in the classroom, the greater the student’s understanding of the Church.

White said the presence of sisters at Saint Mary’s has an important role in the story of the campus.

“It’s important for all of us to live out the tradition and the mission of the college as written and designed by the Sisters of the Holy Cross,” White said.

In response to the idea of “publish versus parish,” which compares the importance of having professors who publish work to professors who are members of the clergy, Linney said Notre Dame has a unique arrangement that allows more faculty members more flexibility.

Notre Dame has two categories of faculty, Linney said. There are those in Teaching and Research, who are “expected to generate and publish new knowledge,” and those in Special Professional, who are “valued because of their unique experience,” she said.

Special Professional faculty, according to Linney, are “stellar instructors who like to devote more time teaching than to publishing.” Therefore, the expectations for publication are different.

Despite this distinction, Linney maintained Notre Dame expects the same level of quality from all its professors. There are both priest and lay professors in both categories of faculty, she added, meaning priests are not held to different standards than lay professors.

“Notre Dame is not about compromising its standards,” she said, “but we recognize that people have different ways of contributing overall to excellence.”