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What it means to be a Catholic community

| Friday, March 29, 2019

Notre Dame is an unabashedly Catholic place, and I thank God for that. However, in my relatively short time here, I have observed many different interpretations of what that means, or what it’s supposed to mean.

Undeniably, its Catholic identity makes Notre Dame different from other universities. And I’m forthright in my position that it’s better for it, by facilitating community, providing for what would otherwise be discouraged opportunities for discourse and emphasizing the authentic value of faith (by no means an exhaustive list.)  

However, to understand what it means to be a great Catholic university, we must first understand what it is to be Catholic. Studying the Nicene Creed might provide the most succinct explanation. More holistically, one could read the Bible. Additionally, the oft-cited Catechism of the Catholic Church can be enlightening. Of course, by its very nature and construction, the Catechism is not an infallible text, and those who reference it must always be conscious of that fact. No matter the source, though, one would be hard-pressed to find the perfect answer.

And we could always look to the name itself. The “Catholic” in “Catholic Church” refers to the “universality” (the “catholicity”) of the faith, founded by Jesus Christ for all, regardless of one’s race, color, religion, sex, language, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, disability, age, marital or family status, economic or social situation, sexual orientation or gender identity. This is not to say the Church does not provide a lofty set of expectations for the imperfect people of God but that no soul is exempt from His redemptive grace.

Notre Dame’s identity as a Catholic institution is having an Islam Awareness Week. It’s having a crucifix prominently displayed in every classroom. It’s having a chaplain for LGBT students. It’s having a basilica and over 50 chapels and offering multiple Masses every day of the week. It’s welcoming people of faith, people who have never been exposed to faith, and even people hostile to it — whether the Catholic variety or otherwise. It’s having Our Lady perched atop the Golden Dome. It’s debating the role of religion in society. It’s having a robust Campus Ministry filled with men and women passionate about the faith and eager to share it with others. It’s fighting injustice, discrimination and oppression. It’s praying before sporting events, at meals and, well, any time really. It’s having the Center for Social Concerns, the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and the McGrath Institute for Church Life. It’s being “one of the most powerful means of doing good in this country” and beyond. And yes, all of this will, at times, result in arduous conversations and the occasional (or even reoccurring) irreconcilable difference. But we’re Catholic, the likes of which include St. Paul, Sts. Felicity and Perpetua, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Thomas More, Fr. Edward Sorin and Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, so we can handle those things. And by “we,” I mean those of us who are confident in our faith, unafraid to take up Christ’s call to engage with others and love as if our souls depended on it (because they do.)

Notre Dame’s identity as a Catholic institution is not a scapegoat for those who, in reality, find it difficult to engage with beliefs and issues that differ from or conflict with their own conceptions of Catholicism. Moreover, providing a forum for different voices does not automatically equate to an endorsement of them by the University, especially since it exists as an institution of higher learning. The Church’s understanding of free will is vital to that conclusion. The situation becomes more complicated when discussing the direct provision of University funds and other resources to certain organizations, events and undertakings. But that’s not what we’re talking about here.

Or is it? I offer you a prime example of a recurring event that is, in its execution, largely inconsistent with more than a few Catholic teachings: the infamous home football game. Bring on my crucifixion, Pontius Pilate.

Of course, I don’t mean the football itself, and I certainly don’t seek to lament the fellowship it inspires. Instead, I think of the trash strewn across Our Lady’s campus come Sunday afternoon; the widespread absence of courtesy and respect plaguing tailgates, the stands of Notre Dame Stadium and even the hallowed space of the Basilica; the abundant waste, whether in the form of food, electricity or other valuable resources; and the excessive consumption of alcohol. I’ve received my fair share of contact highs while distributing the Body of Christ to people at pre and post-game Masses to know firsthand just how many people fail to abstain from food and drink one hour before receiving Holy Communion. (I genuinely love seeing so many people at Mass, but for goodness’ sake, if you can’t leave your six pack outside, don’t even bother — true story.)

Yet I have never witnessed anyone voicing their disapproval — in the pages of this publication or elsewhere — for the blatantly un-Catholic nature of those things. And let’s not forget that the people admonished most harshly by Jesus were not the prostitutes and tax collectors of his time but the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23; Luke 6, 11). Our Lord wasn’t beating around the (burning) bush when he looked at them and shouted, “You fools!”

For all those who argue that non-Catholics — and those who struggle with the Church’s teachings (i.e., everyone) — should feel unwelcome at this Catholic university, I say this: no man or woman in all of history was ever converted through an act of exclusion; one cannot come to love what they are never allowed to know.

As we enter the second half of Lent — a season marked by prayerful reflection, paschal fasting and almsgiving — this is an opportune time for us to evaluate how each of us contributes to the catholicity of this place we call Notre Dame.

David P. Spicer

J.D. ’20

Mar. 27, 2019

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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