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The nature of “Catholic character”

Observer Viewpoint | Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Notre Dame history professor Brad Gregory finds that his academic freedom has been enhanced by a move from Stanford University to Notre Dame. Philosophy professor John O’Callaghan reminds his colleague professor Fritz Warfield that while the Department of Philosophy at Notre Dame can host an annual meeting of the American Catholic Philosophical Association, providing the necessary facilities for daily mass, etc., our sister department at the University of Michigan does not enjoy such freedom.I honestly mean no offense to anyone when I say that Gregory and O’Callaghan are exactly right about something. Gregory is freer to do many of the things he wants to do as a professor at Notre Dame. O’Callaghan enjoys the prospect of return visits to campus by the American Catholic Philosophical Association.But just where’s the scoreboard keeping tally in the all-out contest among the Sweet Sixteen contenders for the title of “the freest university of them all?” Does anyone know how to keep score in this game? Is this game worth the candle? Does this issue help us promote both academic freedom and Catholic character at Notre Dame? The discussion about academic freedom and Catholic character is not about who’s number one.It’s got to focus on Catholic character, because I think most consenting adults understand that the best way to destroy honesty, trust and friendship in an academic community is to bestow more academic freedom on the defenders of a particular position than is granted its critics. Academic freedom ought to be a no-brainer. But Catholic character? Sounds like a topic for a 400-level course to me.But we’ve got to get a few things straight before we think about a syllabus for that course. Since we all share a moral obligation to be as intelligent as possible, we must all understand this course will not be Marketing 401. We’re not talking about the University as a brand; we’re not thinking about the logo or which actors’ names can run above the title.To the extent that this issue merits all the attention it’s getting, “Catholic character” must refer to the quality of a Notre Dame education, specifically – since no one argues that “The Vagina Monologues” or the [former] Queer Film Festival are vehicles for increasing familiarity with traditional Catholicism or the doctrines of the Church – the quality of moral education at this University, and, most particularly, moral education about sexuality. Presumably the official Catholic view on sexual morality is not trivially true, a matter of obvious first principles; principles never to be disputed nor proved. But if that teaching has the status of a theorem cluster, complex propositions following reasonably from first principles, then as it is the business of some to use every possible means to prove that theorem cluster, it must be the business of others to contest it, by all reasonable means, including those appealing powerfully to the emotions. That, I propose, is what “Catholic character” requires at a university.A disputable point, I hope.

Ed Manierprofessor of philosophyclass of 1953Feb. 14