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ND’s Catholic – don’t be surprised

Greg Yatarola | Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Before transferring to Notre Dame, I spent two years at West Point. It’s not just a well-known military academy – it’s well known as a military academy. You couldn’t possibly explain the place to someone without discussing its military character.

Even so, in my platoon I had a classmate who swore he didn’t know it was a military institution prior to arriving for basic training. Eric was from California and was by far the most laid-back, easy-going guy I’d ever met. According to him, his father had picked the school for him and taken care of the application process (talk about neat tricks to play on your kids!). The first day of basic training is traumatic and disorienting for all new cadets, but listening to Eric describe his experience was especially entertaining. “What’s everyone yelling at me for?” “Does ‘barracks’ mean ‘dorms’?” “But I like my hair long””

I understand if this story strains your credulity. I myself found it very hard to believe at first. But USMA cadets don’t tell lies casually – lying violates the honor code, and often means separation from the academy. Besides, if you knew Eric, you’d see how the story just might possibly be true.

I’m not telling this story because I think it’s funny, but because I was reminded of Eric so often at Notre Dame. Granted, Catholicism isn’t as central to Notre Dame’s identity as the military is to Army’s, and there’s far more diversity of opinion about what Catholicism is or entails than about the nature of the profession of arms. But still, I kept coming across kids all the time who apparently had no idea that Notre Dame was a Catholic school. I can’t remember how many times I heard somebody say something to the effect of “Notre Dame would be a great place if it weren’t for all the Catholic bull#@$” – like all the Catholic bull#@$% were some sort of big surprise to them!

Back in spring 2002, ResLife banned liquor in dorms. Mass outrage ensued – angry letters, demonstrations, vandalism. Then a smaller wave of protest, against the protests. The basic lament? Notre Dame students are quite apathetic and un-mobilize-able about important things, but take away their coolness-in-a-bottle, and they all turn into Martin Luther King. One alumna wrote to The Observer, recalling disappointedly what a hard time she’d had getting students to actively support abortion rights.

The cynic in me was surprised at her lack of success. Hadn’t she tried scholarship athletes? Theology majors? Once the cynicism subsided, I could only marvel. Here’s a woman, smart enough to be admitted, appalled that a good share, maybe even most, of the student body at the nation’s premier Catholic university wasn’t especially enthusiastic about abortion on demand.

I picked out the poor woman, bless her heart, not to pick on her, but because she’s one of the more robust examples of what I’m describing. She’s far from unique, though, based on my experience. And I’m not just referring to sad PSA misfits.

My point isn’t that unless you’re gung-ho Catholic, you don’t belong at Notre Dame. Actually, those types worry me most. Like Father Hesburgh once said – and largely thanks to him! – Notre Dame is a great place to lose your faith. Serious Catholics have the most faith to lose. For the rest of you, though, please don’t go hysterical when a Catholic institution runs itself according to Catholic principles.

One of my best friends at Notre Dame was Jewish. Obviously, he wasn’t behind all the administration’s policies, or students’ views. Good Catholic, no – he wasn’t even a good Jew. But he came to Notre Dame freely, knowing what he was getting into. He didn’t pout on those six Fridays a year when he couldn’t get pork in the dining hall, and he didn’t whine that the C.S.C. was shoving Catholicism down his throat because it made fornicating marginally more difficult for students than it is at most schools. And he didn’t consider fellow students closed-minded morons because they – go figure – assented to many or most of the teachings of the Catholic Church.

If you find Notre Dame’s Catholicity oppressive, remember a few things. One, chances are, nobody roped you into coming here. Two, there’s at least six other kids out there who’d gladly follow du Lac to the ‘t’ just to be in your shoes. No, I really don’t care if something on campus is named for one of your relatives, or if you scored a goal in a lacrosse game nobody watched. You’re not doing Notre Dame a favor by your presence.

A somewhat popular stunt back in my days at Notre Dame, and one which sticks in my memory as particularly vile, was for couples to copulate on the hill outside the seminary. When I heard about things like that, my first thought was usually, “I hope they go blind and crippled.” But my second thought was always, “What (besides copulating) are they doing here?” If you’re one of those people, or would like to be, or think it would be cool if there were condom dispensers in the basilica, I have no right to say whether you should be at Notre Dame. But please try to understand how I might wonder what brought you here, and what makes you stay. And take it from me: transferring’s not that bad.

Greg’s not really a mean, grumpy old grad, he just writes like it. He can be reached at [email protected]

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

necessarily those of The Observer.