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Catholic faculty and the ND mission

Charles Rice | Wednesday, November 14, 2007

“The Catholic identity of the University,” says the Mission Statement, “depends upon … the … presence of a predominant number of Catholic intellectuals.” Ex Corde Ecclesiae (ECE), the 1990 apostolic constitution on Catholic universities, requires more explicitly that “the number of non-Catholic teachers should not be allowed to constitute a majority within the institution.” Notre Dame’s pursuit of recognition as an elite research university has coincided with a severe drop in the percent of faculty who identify themselves as Catholic. Retirements and other factors portend an irreversible decline, far below 50 percent. That can be averted, as the Project Sycamore analysis shows, only by an immediate change to the hiring each year of a strong majority of Catholics.

The administration created an ad hoc committee to address this problem. The September report of that committee is less than persuasive in its analysis and not helpful in its conclusions. But that report is not the subject of this essay. Rather, it will be useful to reflect on the Oct. 11 address, “Catholic Colleges and Universities Today,” by Cardinal Avery Dulles at Assumption College.

A convert and the son of John Foster Dulles, President Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, the Cardinal has rendered distinguished service to Catholic higher education. Using as his “primary guides” ECE and Cardinal John Henry Newman’s “The Idea of a University,” Cardinal Dulles addresses bluntly the hiring of Catholic faculty. He does so in the context of culture and the relation of the university to the Church and its magisterium or teaching authority. A “Catholic institution,” he said, “must be founded on three principles: that there is a God, that he has made a full and final revelation of himself in Jesus Christ and that the Catholic Church is the authorized custodian and teacher of this body of revealed truth.”

The Cardinal proposed “that all disciplines involving human values should be taught at a Catholic institution with due attention to their religious implications.” “Graduates,” he said, “should not go forth with an advanced education in literature and science, while remaining at grade school level in their knowledge of religion,” including “the interplay between faith and reason.” He reminds us that “[w]e live in a consumerist society, in which colleges tend to shape their policies according to the demands of the market, as though the measure of success were to construct more buildings and increase student enrollment. … Our colleges and universities must … guard against being coopted into this culture, which is … anti-Christian and dehumanizing.”

The cardinal’s remarks are relevant to Notre Dame in his treatment of religious diversity and the marginalization of religion by the academic establishment. He questioned the pursuit of diversity as a goal in itself: “Postmodern students … imagine that change and diversity are desirable for their own sakes. … [S]tudents should be educated for the world of today [and] a variety of cultures may be a source of enrichment. But for nations to live together in peace and friendship, they must share common convictions regarding … the basic norms of morality.”

“Religious diversity,” he said, “is not desirable in itself. It appeals chiefly to those who believe there is no truth in religion anyway. If we believe that God is one, and that Jesus is his incarnate Son, we will hope that all peoples, with their different voices and idioms, may someday unite in praising him. To make this goal persuasive in the contemporary atmosphere of subjectivism and relativism is a serious challenge. Still another challenge comes from the academic establishment in America today. In secular circles there is a virtual consensus that no courses ought to be taught from a distinctive religious point of view. Faith is generally held to have no place in the classroom, at least on the level of higher education. If this only means that faith should not be imposed in the classroom, we can agree. But if it means that professors should not manifest their religious beliefs or seek to defend them, the objection is unsound.”

Cardinal Dulles went on to relate the hiring of all faculty to mission without limitation to percentages. “A Catholic institution,” he said, “has to be clear about its mission. An essential step … is that faculty be hired for mission. If the teachers are hostile to the mission of the college or indifferent about it, the college will suffer. It does not suffice to hire faculty who are nominally Catholic. If teachers are angry with the Church or unsympathetic toward her doctrines, no changes in the curriculum will succeed in making the institution truly Catholic.”

The Cardinal stressed that the Catholic university “participates … in the mission of the universal Church,” and that the teaching authority of the Church should be welcomed: “Cardinal Newman … points out the advantages that the guidance of the magisterium gives for the … university itself. Just as we turn to professors to teach us disciplines in which they are expert, so we turn to the … Church to give secure guidance in matters of religion. For it is to the Church that God has entrusted the deposit of faith … for answering important questions that … arise in the human heart. … Without the helping hand of the Church, Newman contends, the human mind gravitates toward infidelity. … The Catholic … university … should gratefully acknowledge the mercy of God who has provided an institution that has for two thousand years kept the Christian revelation complete and unsullied. Whatever the latest theories of professors or the inclination of students may be, the college should not forsake its Catholic allegiance. While offering its students a vast panoply of skills and learning, it gathers up the fragments of knowledge under the luminous aegis of Christian faith, proclaimed today as always by the successor of Peter and the bishops in union with him.”

Meeting the challenges facing a Catholic university, Cardinal Dulles said, “cannot be the task of the president alone. He must have backing from the trustees and cooperation from the faculty and administration.” The administration and the ad hoc committee seek to build such cooperation. The proportion of Catholic faculty at Notre Dame is declining, however, not because suitable candidates cannot be found, but because of the obstacle course any seriously Catholic candidate faces in obtaining departmental approval.

The University mission is subordinated to the contrary will of component departments. The Academic Articles, however, vest the power to appoint faculty in the president himself. The existing processes will produce only marginal and fruitless tinkering. The president has power, in effect, to govern by veto. In support of the mission, he ought to use that power.

Professor Emeritus Charles Rice is on the faculty of the Law School. He can be reached at (547) 633-4415 or at [email protected]

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.