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Compromising our Catholic identity

| Monday, February 23, 2015

The controversy surrounding the University’s decennial core curriculum review caught my attention before it crowded my newsfeed. From Facebook to the Washington Post, it seems the question has caught the attention of the masses as well.

Reconsidering and resituating longstanding ideology in a modern context is integral to healthy, institutional development. Furthermore, the likelihood that the University is going to cut theology requirements is miniscule, and nothing has been decided yet. Even if Notre Dame were to restructure its theology requirements — perhaps integrate other departments, for instance — it is a far leap to conclude this would “compromise” our Catholic identity. In my opinion, the communal uproar is unjustified.

Although I do not agree with the dissenters’ conclusion, I do agree with the sentiment behind their principle objection: Such an identity has indeed been compromised, and this is a reality we ought to address.

Instead of launching a crusade over six credits, however, I propose we first fix our attention to a more pervasive threat to our collective Catholic identity: the dissonance between student-body values and the University’s mission statement. Let’s devote our energy, resources and productive outrage to more significant issues — the ones that engender far more harmful consequences.

The lack of conscientious career choices upon graduation, for instance, is troubling. As a second semester senior, I cannot help but notice that most of my peers have not sought employment that facilitates ethical action — even as Notre Dame’s “aim is to create a sense of human solidarity and concern for the common good that will bear fruit as learning becomes service to justice” (ND Mission Statement). It seems it is too easy to prioritize salary and prestige over “service to justice.” We must ask why.

The state of race relations at Notre Dame also deserves attention. Let’s discuss the racial harassment in 2012, when fried chicken was placed in the mailboxes of the Black Student Association and African Student Association. Let’s scrutinize the reception of Ann Coulter in 2014; in spite of her perpetuation of hateful rhetoric and xenophobic ideology, her talk was well attended by enthusiastic supporters. Let’s challenge the students who do not believe in the existence of white privilege, even though they are often the ones who most enjoy it. If it is easy to be racially ignorant at Notre Dame, we must ask why.

And let us bear in mind that the University itself is complicit in these tacit hypocrisies. For instance, the University maintains its contract with Coca-Cola, even though the company has profited from offshore labor abuse in Colombia. According to We Are 9, the University also invests an estimated 7 to 15 percent of its endowment in environmentally destructive fossil fuels, in spite of its ostensible commitments to stewardship and sustainability. Unlike many universities of its stature, Notre Dame does not have a plan for carbon neutrality. There is still a coal-fired power plant on campus that emits harmful toxins and poses significant health risks to those in the area, despite student appeals to shut it down. When the institution prioritizes profit or convenience over moral responsibility, we must ask why.

These are just a few of the matters that merit critical inspection and compromise our Catholic identity. Let me be clear: I believe both the University and its students are capable of great things, and I do not wish to disregard the progress we have made in recent years — progress often pioneered by students. I applaud the University’s official recognition of a gay-straight alliance and the work students have done to foster LGBTQ inclusion. I am proud to be a part of a community that accepts and funds undocumented students. I commend student-led campaigns like One Is Too Many and We Are 9, committed to preventing sexual violence and promoting sustainability, respectively. I am inspired by the peaceful protest organized in response to Ann Coulter’s visit last spring and by the “Black Lives Matter” manifestation this winter.

This is what we can be: a voice for the silenced, an agent of positive change, an advocate for the marginalized. Let’s hold Notre Dame and ourselves to a higher standard. Let’s face the responsibilities commensurate with our privilege. Let’s orient our curriculum, students, faculty, staff, administration, communal values and collective energies towards cultivating “a disciplined sensibility to the poverty, injustice and oppression that burden the lives of so many” (ND Mission Statement). Perhaps our requirements would be better spent on classes devoted to the vulnerable. Perhaps we could better embody our Catholic identity through more commitments to the Center for Social Concerns and the Catholic Peacebuilding Network.

So if we’re going to talk about the endangered status of Notre Dame’s Catholic identity, I propose we begin by confronting the aforementioned issues. The students who espouse those egregious mentalities completed their two theology requirements; did that make a difference? If not, what will?


Tess Gunty



Feb. 20

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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  • Todd V.

    Your conception of “Catholic Identity” seems unfortunately quite narrow. Perhaps two Theology courses is not enough.

    • Cbreezy

      ‘Limited government, liberty and free trade are the basic goals of the College Libertarians at Notre Dame.

      “The first step is education and logical discourse,” according to senior Todd Velianski, president of the club.’

      Your conception of “good economics” seems unfortunately quite narrow. Perhaps two Theology degrees is not enough.

      • Todd V.

        While I feel flattered you took the time to do some Internet searching to craft an ad hominem, I fail to see how my economic opinions from two years ago should affect a discussion of Catholic Identity in a university setting.

      • Nathan

        Wait…what do theology degrees have to do with economics?

        His point was that theology courses should give you a better grasp of Catholic identity. I don’t think most people expect a theology degree to give you the same grasp of economics

        • elcalebo

          In Jesus’ time there was no separation between theology and economics. Oh, and Jesus’ economic views were rather different to libertarian capitalism.

          • Nathan

            In Jesus’s time there was no separation between astronomy and religion either. Our scientific understandings change over time and modern economics is not based on Jesus’s teachings the same way modern Catholicism professes to be.

          • elcalebo

            Sure. That doesn’t mean theology degrees have (or should have) nothing to do with economics.

  • Marie S

    I appreciate this exposure of blatant hypocrisies and contradictions that exist within Notre Dame and the student body. With a school that has a mission so grounded in social justice, it is disconcerting to note the misalignment between what is stated and what is, in fact, happening in such insular, privileged communities-something sitting in on a theology course or two, or four will not correct. I appreciate that Ms. Gunty put a voice to these concerns.

  • Double Domer

    Unimpressed. Yet another “Celebrate diversity except the diversity of thought, especially ‘hateful’ conservative thought” editorial. Yawn.
    Anyway, Notre Dame has FAILED the mission of The Church for reasons far beyond “white privilege”, racial insensitivities, and Ann Coulter.

    • Lara

      Mind sharing the ways it has failed?

      • Nicola M. Costello

        Yes. I’m an alumnus of ND. Notre Dame has capitulated to the LGBT agenda. A follower of Christ can not condone sexual immorality of any kind. See Matthew 19:1-10, John 8:1-11, and John 4: 1-26. Jesus teaches clearly what marriage is and how to treat people who fall short with dignity without condoning the sin.

        • Nathan

          In Matthew 19:1-10 he also makes it clear that marriage is forbidden. I still can’t believe people throw such fits over some thousand gay people getting married as opposed to some million straight ones getting divorced. The cherry picking and hypocrisy is unreal.

  • Nathan

    A few points:

    1.) The power plant on campus is coal powered only in a very loose sense of the word. It’s boilers are actually primarily heated by natural gas (source: http://green.nd.edu/strategy/energy/about-nd-power-generation/)

    2.) From what I gathered from your own link was that the chicken wings incident was largely condemned by the university and the student body. That proves the existence of a few troublemakers, not a widespread racial issue.
    3.) While there are still many people on campus who might not buy the idea of white privilege, I think that the university and student body are certainly challenging those assumptions (see this years Keenan revue for a good example).

    In general, I’ll agree that there are plenty of areas where the university could do more in promoting its Catholic mission. I think the points you raise about sustainability in particular bear a lot of thought.

    That said, theology courses are relevant to the university’s catholic mission as well, and the curriculum review makes this a relevant time for people to affirm their support for the requirements. I guess I don’t see this as a zero sum game, though my salute for bringing up these issues 🙂

    • elcalebo

      1) Natural gas is a fossil fuel.

      2) “Just a few bad apples” is the perennial excuse against addressing institutional or cultural problems.

      3) That’s good but it has a long way to go; look at the ethnicities of students, grad students, faculty and management vis-a-vis the general population of South Bend/the US.

      • Nathan

        1.) And water vapor is a greenhouse gas. Natural gas is considerably less polluting than coal, so my point was that calling the ND plant a coal powered plant is misleading as to how much pollution it expels

        Source: http://www.epa.gov/cleanenergy/energy-and-you/affect/natural-gas.html

        2.) Just because something is an oft used excuse doesn’t make it false in a specific context. How does the chicken wing incident show systemic racism when the administration and student body (the system) all promptly condemned the action and vocalized support for those affected? What exactly would a REAL “a few bad apples” case look like to you?

        3.) How would you go about addressing this, and/or does it need to be addressed?

        • elcalebo

          Fair point re: coal.

          A system can cause or perpetuate injustice against the intents of its representatives, even while its representatives condemn that injustice (or at least the more overt expressions of it).

          How to fix it? I have neither the expertise nor the time to answer that here.

          • Nathan

            One follow up question:
            -In your mind is there such thing as a “few bad apples” case of racism, or is any level of racism a case of systemic issues? If there is such a case, what would it look like to you?

          • elcalebo

            Sure. Good question. Well, I suppose it’s important to keep in mind that individual acts of racism don’t pop up out of nowhere; some factors influence people to think and choose in those ways… something makes the apples go bad in those particular ways.

            I guess a “few bad apples” case of racism would be one where an institution or community or group (e.g. Notre Dame) does everything in their power to strive for ethnic justice and ensure that social, structural and individual racism are minimized: addressing injustice and privilege in the wider society, educating holistic ethnic awareness, cultivating the necessary virtue, etc. That won’t stop individual acts of racism, because no group is a vacuum, and members will also be influenced by other stuff in their lives and other groups they’re part of.

            So if Notre Dame fit that description of doing everything they could to eliminate ethnic injustice, and there were still individual cases of racism here, those individual people would be “bad apples” with respect to ND, because no social factors at ND would have influenced them in that direction at all. But they wouldn’t be “bad apples” if that is taken to mean that they’re only explainable as individuals, and that there are no social factors in the entire world that have influenced their actions. As well as being their individual choices, their actions would partly be influenced by social factors (systemic, cultural, ideological, political, group dynamics, etc.).

            So I guess it comes down to whether you think ND fits that description or not.

  • disqus_wHRcN9VDaG

    Great insights.

  • ND Student

    Your approach is totally off base. While living lives of charity and in agreement with Catholic Social Teaching is essential for growth in the faith, you fail to recognize the source of these teachings. What gives Catholic Social Teaching such great weight is its foundation in the life, truth and acts of Jesus Christ. If we cannot adequately explore the depth and power of the Truth of Christ in an explicitly theological setting, at the finest Catholic University in the world, then Notre Dame will have failed us and all of those who look toward us as examples. While you can make an argument for many of the topics you bring up, they are but secondary truths which stem from Christ. You confuse your politics for your religion, when you should be reflecting on your religion to develop your politics. Theology is the source of that knowledge and meditation, and I recommend we recognize the prestige we ought to give the Queen of Sciences at Our Lady’s University.

  • Sarah Stubbs

    I have to disagree with what you see as a troubling “lack of conscientious career choices upon graduation.” At least 10% of ND grads do an entire year of service work after graduating, and many many more have jobs that allow them to live out the Catholic spirit of the university after graduation. Almost everyone I know IS entering jobs or further education that are oriented around making the world a better place. Maybe we run with different crowds, but I know business students who want to start companies like Better World Books, pre-med students that want to care for their patients in the most literal sense of the word, and engineering students who have plans to spend their vacations building sanitation systems in rural Africa. Sure, there will always be things to fix, but I think that’s precisely why the university takes this time to evaluate its coursework and make sure it’s still on track to producing more excellent, generous students.

  • Annette Magjuka

    I am a ’78 grad with three grown children, two of whom attended ND. From my long view, the Catholic identity of ND is crucial to the hard work of forming your personal religious, political and social identities. The theology requirement should stay, even if it is updated for the times. The question as you go forward is, how do you live your faith in a secular world? How do you navigate the tensions between making a living and social justice; working and taking care of a family; working and love; working and maintaining friendships; working and body health? This is what you will have to do when you graduate. Right now, in your sheltered (some say country club) environment, all you have to do is study, socialize, and think. Make great use of this precious time. Grow up. If you study and think deeply, I am sure that whatever profession you enter, you will find a way to live the faith that connects us all.

  • Thanks for thoughts Tess. Especially about the endowment. Wouldn’t it be great if all the elite universities decided to release the content of their endowments — the hedge funds, investments in munitions manufacturers, etc. etc. The “elite 25” operate like a cartel anyway in so many regards — early admissions, faculty sliding from one campus to the other, plans to pull-the-plug on AP credits, etc, etc. — if only they’d own up to this in all aspects of their management.

  • ljgirl

    So I didn’t see anything about about Abortion in your manifesto… Not in your Catholic identity? And just for the record, not everyone at ND is privileged. Their school breaks are going back to “no where” America and waiting tables to keep the student loans down. So before you lecture everyone on what they should do after graduation maybe you should stop being so judgmental of how others serve God.

  • Please Stop

    Job was a righteous man, and God blessed him greatly. If he were alive today, he would be lambasted for “prioritizing salary and prestige over ‘service to justice.’”

    • elcalebo

      If you want to show that a rich person today is righteous/just, show that they’re righteous/just by showing that they live their life and get their money in righteous/just ways. “Someone 3000 years ago was righteous/just and rich” is a pretty weak argument in favor of the rich today.

      • Please Stop

        Exactly my point. “The lack of conscientious career choices upon graduation, for instance, is troubling. As a second semester senior, I cannot help but notice that most of my peers have not sought employment that facilitates ethical action” is a blanket statement that is simply an inaccurate portrayal of Notre Dame students. In fact, what I have found is that those students who obtain the highest-paying careers are also the nicest and most honorable on campus. How dare we accuse them of being unconscientious.

  • elcalebo

    Great letter; thanks.