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Catholic identity

Charles Rice | Sunday, January 18, 2009

Three decades ago, in 1978, Notre Dame proclaimed itself a “Research University.” Notre Dame’s mission had been the provision of affordable education, in the Catholic tradition, to undergrads, with research and graduate education in an important, complementary role.The major universities went heavily into the research business in the 1970s as income limits were raised by Congress on eligibility for federally supported student loans. As limits were repeatedly raised, the universities repeatedly raised tuition to finance their research programs and buildings. The federal programs were a Big Rock Candy Mountain for the universities. They financed their research enterprises on the backs of borrowing students.Notre Dame was far from the worst offender but it was in on the action. In 1978-79, undergrad tuition, room and board at Notre Dame was $5,180. In 2008-09, it is $46,680. If it had kept pace with the Consumer Price Index, it would now be $17,042. Notre Dame’s financial aid office does excellent work in reducing the debt burden of students, but the student or parent loan remains the major form of “financial aid.”In pursuing research repute, our leaders act in what they see as the best interests of Notre Dame. Any criticisms here relate to policies and not persons. The research fixation, however, has unintended consequences. One is the escalation of tuition and student debt. Another is the “building binge” which has irrevocably transformed the formerly pastoral Notre Dame into a crowded, urban-style campus. One wonders where they will put the inevitable parking garage and which lucky donor will get to put his or her name on it. Another result is a diminished emphasis on undergrad teaching. As one tenured liberal arts professor put it, “You don’t really need to have any impact on the undergraduates” to get promoted. “You just need [to have written] a book.”One overlooked result is the decrease of Catholic faculty. In the 1970s more than 80 percent of the Notre Dame faculty identified themselves as Catholic. In 1986 it was 64 percent. Now it is 53 percent and going south.17 years ago, Dr. David W. Lutz, then a Notre Dame Ph.D. candidate and now professor of philosophy at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa in Nairobi, identified the “real danger” to Notre Dame’s Catholic identity as those “who believe that Notre Dame can strive for ever-higher standards of academic excellence – and use the same criteria … by which … secular universities… are judged to be excellent – without forfeiting [its] Catholic character.” First Things, January, 1992. “Elite universities,” Dr. Lutz later wrote, “are ranked by … the research they produce. One … problem with emphasizing research is that teaching may be de-emphasized but a far more important, though less-noted, danger is that emphasizing research causes Catholicism to be de-emphasized. This is true, not because there is any problem with doing excellent Catholic research, but because it is more difficult to publish such research in prestigious journals and with elite university presses than to publish the kind of scholarship respected by secular universities.” Observer, Feb. 17, 1993.Notre Dame benefits greatly from the presence of faculty who are not Catholic. The Administration, in accord with Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the Apostolic Constitution on Catholic Universities, is trying to increase the Catholic faculty. One obstacle is the insistence, as the Ad Hoc Committee put it, that those efforts “cannot be allowed to compromise the University’s academic quality.” The false dichotomy between faith and academic quality distorts reason as well as faith. It ensures the obliteration of the Catholic character of the University.In “The Decline and Fall of the Christian College,” in First Things in 1991, Fr. James T. Burtchaell, C.S.C., said the Christian college “must have a predominance of committed … communicants of its mother church. This must be regarded, not as an alien consideration, but as a professional qualification…. [A]cademic qualifications can be … traded off … but when any one of them is systematically subordinated … it will shortly disappear from the institution.”Commitment to the Catholic faith is not a non-rational preference irrelevant to suitability for the academic life of a Catholic university. John Paul II affirmed the “unity between the knowledge of reason and the knowledge of faith…. [T]he world and … history cannot be understood in depth without professing faith in the God who is at work in them.” Fides et Ratio, no. 16. He described the “knowledge which is peculiar to faith” as “surpassing the knowledge proper to human reason.” No. 8.In his 2005 Address at Notre Dame, Archbishop J. Michael Miller, of the Congregation for Catholic Education, addressed the relation between faith and research. He quoted John Paul II: “In carrying out its research, a Catholic university can rely on a superior enlightenment which, without changing the nature of this research, purifies it, orients it, enriches it and uplifts it…. This light is not found ‘outside’ rational research, as a limitation or an impediment, but rather ‘above’ it, as its elevation and an expansion of its horizons.” Address, April 25, 1989. As Miller noted, “the Catholic tradition has unremittingly held that the more we probe the mystery of God with the help of faith, the more we understand reality…. The gift of faith empowers the intellect to act according to its deepest nature.”Our leaders ought not to subordinate Catholic faith as a professional qualification for the academic life of Notre Dame. The President has authority to appoint faculty. He could solve the “Catholic” problem by executive veto of appointments. It is a question of will.

Prof. Emeritus Rice is on the Law School faculty. He may be reached at [email protected], or at 574-633-4415.The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necesarily those of The Observer.