‘Embody your faith’: Student Life Council returns to Notre Dame
Bella Laufenberg | Wednesday, February 22, 2023
On Tuesday evening, students filed into the Carey Auditorium in Hesburgh Library for an event that was 50 years in the making: the resurgence of the Student Life Council (SLC).
The ‘New’ SLC
A passion project of student government executive leaders Patrick Lee, Sofie Stitt and Nicole Baumann, the resurgence of the SLC has been a labor of love over the last year. In an interview with The Observer, Lee noted his excitement and goal for the council.
“The primary goal really is to foster communication — to let the students speak with the members of the community who are making decisions and let those decision makers provide the rationale and get constructive comments and feedback from the students,” he said. “[Sofie and I] ran under the, perhaps, unexpected but absolutely central belief that students deserve a voice in the direction of their University.”
There are currently three permanent members of the SLC: vice president for student affairs Fr. Gerard “Gerry” Olinger, student body president Patrick Lee and vice president and associate provost for undergraduate education Fr. Dan Groody. Each time the council meets, one guest member of the panel will be invited that is a pertinent campus leader knowledgeable about the night’s topic.
Tonight’s main topic of engagement was faith and formation at Notre Dame. The guest speaker was Fr. Pete McCormick, assistant vice president for campus ministry.
After the forum’s opening remarks — delivered by vice president Stitt — McCormick delivered the night’s keynote address. He spoke about his department’s findings as a result of the many listening sessions they engaged in over the last few years by answering Pope Francis’s call to “engage in a process of walking alongside and encountering people where they find themselves.”
He detailed how in the Fall of 2021, Campus Ministry invited around 2,000 students to participate in the sessions. Of the 500 that responded yes, only about 280 students followed through and attended one of the multiple hour-long events. McCormick explained that facilitators simply asked attendees three questions: “how do you tend to your own spiritual needs, where do you find community, what do you want the church to know about you and what do you want Notre Dame to know about you.”
The results of the broad “survey” will be available to the public on Feb. 28 on the Campus Ministry website and in their electronic newsletter. McCormick summarized the findings for the audience, highlighting a sense of marginalization in students who identify as “religiously conservative,” LGBTQ+ students, women and those who do not identify with any faith tradition. McCormick said there is a general lack of trust in institutions because of a lack of transparency. He added, however, that Notre Dame does a great job of promoting places to gather and developing religious structure.
After McCormick’s address, each permanent member of the council gave an update on their action steps to promote faith and formation at the University before entering into the question-and-answer portion of the meeting.
During the specific and general question-and-answer sessions, moderated by chief of staff Baumann, students asked a variety of questions both connected to the topic and about the University in general.
Right to Life club president Merlot Fogarty asked multiple questions, one regarding specific faith formation topics and one about University policies in general. Her first question was regarding dorm masses, referring to dorm-specific traditions as “irreverent” and asking what is being done to preserve the sanctity of the holy sacrament.
McCormick responded, saying he agreed with the importance of this issue and wanted to discuss it further after the meeting.
Her second question concerned an “onslaught” of chemical abortion pills being made available by the U.S. government. She asked, “what steps is the University taking to protect women and their safety on campus?”
While Olinger said he encouraged conversations to be had regarding the topic, Lee explained that they wanted to create a culture of listening to advice from trained medical professionals.
“It’s always been about making sure that students are getting medical advice and medical attention from those who are equipped and trained to give it,” Lee emphasized.
Other students asked questions regarding how a Catholic University could promote Eastern Orthodoxy on campus, about the decisions being made to mandate students into getting “the shot” (i.e., the booster mandate requiring students to receive their fourth dosage of a COVID vaccine) and inquiring as to how the council could allow an LGBTQ+ mass at the University.
Olinger took those opportunities to introduce the idea that two conflicting concepts can exist at the same time: “I often think about our call as a Catholic University to, at the same time, uphold the truth of the Catholic tradition and teaching and to continue to work towards inclusion and helping people feel a sense of belonging…Both of these things can be true.”
Lee closed the night’s remarks by reminding audience members to lead by example.
“If you’re in this room, you obviously care enough about the community, and you care enough about the faith life in the community. What I would encourage you to do overall is embody your faith — your faith that is authentic, your faith that is true to our Roman Catholic identity at Notre Dame,” he said.
Back during the Vietnam War, Father Theodore Hesburgh started the council as a way to connect students and administrators, amidst political turmoil on campus. It was created in September of 1968 from a recommendation by the Board of Trustees at that time, according to The Observer archives.
Student body vice president Sofie Stitt, opening the forum during Tuesday’s meeting, explained Hesburgh’s choice saying, “He deemed it really necessary to keep students aware of University decisions and to have an open space to hear their voices and address student concerns.”
When it first was created, the SLC was actually a 24-member “legislative council” made up of eight persons within the student body, faculty and administration, respectively. Like other bodies at the University, the council had legislative authority—meaning anything that came from the SLC would go directly to the desk of the president, who would retain veto power. The student body president at the time, Richard Rossie, criticized the creation of the council, specifically the rule that non-student members held a two-to-one voting majority over the student representatives.
“I am apprehensive about the idea of equal representation,” he said. “Nevertheless, I have an optimistic approach to the council. Structure and numbers are important, but they mean just so much. What’s equally important are the type of people you have filling the positions.”
Of note, Saint Mary’s College also started a similar group around the same time, termed their “community government.” Then-president of the College, Monsignor John McGrath acknowledged that there is no plausible reason that students cannot sit on SMC’s board of trustees.
“The new government is structured with the power filtering down from the president of the college at the top to the hall legislatures at the bottom. Between these is a plethora of committees. Committees become councils as they ascend towards the presidency,” The Observer wrote on Sept. 18, 1968.
During the council’s first official meeting, Hesburgh proclaimed that the SLC “is one of the most important endeavors in the whole University today.”
While the SLC was an acting University body, the council convened and provided a space for authentic conversations surrounding a myriad of hot topic items including the creation of parietals, drug and alcohol use, sex, women at the University and more.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story misspelled Fr. Gerard Olinger’s name. The Observer regrets this error.