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The Pope on Catholic school identity

Charles Rice | Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Pope Benedict XVI’s address to Catholic educators requires extensive analysis. We can mention here only a few of the aspects pertinent to Notre Dame.

The Pope rejected a merely statistical concept of Catholic identity: “A university or school’s Catholic identity is not simply a question of the number of Catholic students … Catholic identity is not dependent upon statistics. Neither can it be equated simply with orthodoxy of course content.” Some at Notre Dame will spin those statements to minimize concern about the sinking of the number of Catholic faculty below the fifty percent mark or about the haphazard exposure, if any, of Notre Dame students to orthodox course content. For Benedict, however, the irrelevancy of mere statistics evidently means that it is not enough to count the faculty who, for whatever reason, check the “Catholic” box. “Catholic identity,” he said, “demands and inspires much more: namely that each and every aspect of your learning communities reverberates within the ecclesial life of the faith. Only in faith can truth become incarnate and reason truly human, capable of directing the will along the path of freedom (cf. Spe Salvi, 23). In this way our institutions make a vital contribution to the mission of the Church and truly serve society.”

This obviously means that a Catholic university cannot isolate itself from the “ecclesial life” of the Church: “A particular responsibility therefore for each of you, and your colleagues, is to evoke among the young the desire for the act of faith, encouraging them to commit themselves to the ecclesial life that follows from this belief. It is here that freedom reaches the certainty of truth. In choosing to live by that truth, we embrace the fullness of the life of faith which is given to us in the Church.”

On this point, that “the fullness of the life of faith … is given to us in the Church,” Notre Dame has a problem, of its own making. The President, Fr. Jenkins, and the Provost, Dr. Burish, initiated a new process of dialogue in their April 2 “statement on the rationale for hiring faculty who will enhance our Catholic mission.” The statement went on for six pages about keeping Notre Dame “truly Catholic” without once mentioning the Catholic Church. That is like explaining how to play baseball without mentioning the ball. The new dialogue process will be interminable and fruitless, as have been all its predecessors.

The incoherence of this dialogue project arises from Notre Dame’s dogged adherence to an abstract relic of 1960s ideology. In 1967, officials of the leading Catholic universities met at the Notre Dame retreat at Land O’Lakes, Wisc., and declared that: “To perform its teaching and research functions effectively, the Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.”

That claim of autonomy from external authority is phony. Notre Dame, like all universities, willingly submits to dozens of governmental and non-governmental authorities including, of course, the NCAA. The only “external authority” Notre Dame will not recognize appears to be the Catholic Church. The Notre Dame brand of academic freedom, for example, is hardly consistent with Benedict’s: “I wish to reaffirm,” he said, “the great value of academic freedom. In virtue of this freedom you are called to search for the truth wherever careful analysis of evidence leads you. Yet it is also the case that any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the Church would obstruct or even betray the university’s identity and mission; a mission at the heart of the Church’s munus docendi [teaching office or function] and not somehow autonomous or independent of it.”

Interestingly, Benedict reaffirmed, without explicit mention of it, the principles of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the 1990 Apostolic Constitution on Catholic Universities. Ex Corde requires of the Catholic university “a recognition of and adherence to the teaching authority of the Church in matters of faith and morals.”

A final quote from Benedict causes regret that no one asked him about the Vagina Monologues: “Teachers and administrators, whether in universities or schools,” said Benedict, ” have the duty and privilege to ensure that students receive instruction in Catholic doctrine and practice. This requires that public witness to the way of Christ, as found in the Gospel and upheld by the Church’s Magisterium, shapes all aspects of an institution’s life, both inside and outside the classroom.” It would be difficult to imagine the man who spoke those lines finding academic merit in the Vagina Monologues.

The problem is truth-in-labeling. Notre Dame, in its fundraising, professes to be Catholic. But it defines that term by its own interpretation. An appropriate name for that mind-set is Protestantism, except that Protestants have the integrity not to call themselves Catholic.

Professor Emeritus Rice is on the law school faculty. He may be reached at (574) 633-4415 or rice.1@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.