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The Puritans of Country Club Catholicism

and | Monday, February 13, 2023

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire: he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into fire” – Jonathan Edwards, 1741, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

The beginning formation of recorded American intellectual life began in the early 1600s with fierce debates about salvation and grace between Protestant preachers. 

John Winthrop, John Cotton, Charles Chauncy, Cotton Mather, Jonathan Edwards and many others created a spiritual and intellectual structure that still lives deep within the bones of American life today. Religious fascists declared truth and demanded obedience to doctrine and rituals with no dissent. Those who failed to follow along were banished, killed or persecuted from the colony like Anne Hutchinson or Roger Williams. Recently, Catholicism at large — and especially at Notre Dame — has been struggling with our own Puritans. Puritans who seek a strain of Catholicism so exclusive and tyrannical that it rips at the threads that tie us all together, that interlink us as a family. A country club of the faith, where those who pray, identify, look or act differently than the majority are described as erosive or harmful to our Catholic mission. Instead of being an extension and continuation of that faith. We have never been a school solely of Catholics students, we’ve been a school driven by an adherence to the Catholic faith. We’ve always attempted to create spaces where those who follow other traditions have the space and guidance to do so because we recognize the importance of faith in our lives and seek to provide those same spaces to others.

Puritan Catholicism emerged in a recent Irish Rover article, arguing Notre Dame’s interfaith work threatens the University’s Catholic identity. Supposedly, the promotion of other faiths is “for diversity’s sake alone,” not to animate and foster the “Catholic intellectual life” articulated in the University’s mission statement.  We disagree with this stance. Religious diversity is central to our University’s Catholic character, which “presupposes that no genuine search for the truth in the human or the cosmic order is alien to the life of faith.” All religions involve that genuine search for truth, and recognition of that fact enables us to “pursue the religious dimensions of all human learning” not found at other universities. Interfaith work is critical to Notre Dame’s status as Catholic and a university. Our Catholic identity embodies “a spirit of inclusion and welcoming of people from all faith traditions, or no faith tradition.” This religious diversity is “an essential precursor to mutual learning and understanding.” The University views Catholicism as the conclusion of that education, but it doesn’t mean we preclude the contributions of other faiths on the journey.

Moreover, Notre Dame’s commitment to religious diversity reflects the Catholic Church’s teachings. Nostra Aetate, the declaration on the Church’s stance with non-Christian religions, explains that the Church “rejects nothing that is true and holy” in other faiths. It calls upon Catholics to engage in dialogue with all faiths to “recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among” these faiths. Notre Dame is especially obligated for this duty, as a later Church document commits Catholic educational institutions with the work set out in Nostra Aetate

The central question of the Rover article is whether the University “can, in good faith, celebrate other faith traditions.” The author answers in the negation, arguing that the celebration of other faiths by Notre Dame reduces “the Catholic position of the school to mean support for meaningful questions rather than the truth of the Catholic faith.” But celebration of other faiths isn’t a denial of Catholicism; it’s the recognition that other religions exist. One doesn’t have to deny one’s faith to support the celebration of another’s religion. The support and celebration of other faiths aligns with the Church’s stance, as we’ve demonstrated above. 

Moreover, one should consider the implications of the Puritan Catholic’s view. The celebrations in question are Jewish and Muslim students hosting events. If the Puritan Catholics are correct, then it seems these events can’t be held; otherwise, the University would be celebrating through their approval of the events. These groups are SAO-approved, which implies the University’s consent. It would also appear, then, that these non-Catholic religious groups can’t exist at all. Puritan Catholics would have a Notre Dame where no faith, other than Catholicism, can be celebrated nor recognized. The result is that the University never achieves its Catholic mission that’s reliant on religious diversity.

The Puritan’s intellectual life is complicated, much like the Country Club Puritans of Notre Dame. Having a strong preference for truth and agreement among the masses, in many ways, offers an easier path to organize a society built for the common good. The strong values of communitarianism, the “city upon a hill” of puritan lawyer John Winthrop provides a strong case for being guided by moral values. Preacher Jonathan Edwards envisioned a civic life more supernatural and guided by emotions. There are really good elements.

To a certain extent, we are far too harsh on the Puritans; there are good things that come from their theology and way of being. Our own Puritan Catholics provide opportunities to more deeply delve into tradition, to think more critically about the faith and to create a more cohesive community experience. However, the homogeneity their theology hinges on is wrong-headed and harmful, leading us astray in attempting to clamp down on “tradition.”

To create a campus less puritanical and more welcoming of all faiths there are a couple of things each of us can do today.  Professors can add interfaith holiday clauses on to their syllabi, like many in American Studies do. All it requires is copying and pasting it on your syllabi and you make sure students of all faiths know they have the space to practice their faith. Just as Catholics would not want to be prevented from going to our high holy days because of class conflicts, offering this provides individuals of other faiths to be able to not sacrifice their academic or religious life for the other. Students, faculty, staff, alumni, and anyone else related to Notre Dame can sign the Irish 4 Inclusion petition, which calls on the University to add religious affiliation to the University’s Non-Discrimination Clause, protections all of our Holy Cross and most of our Catholic peer institutions also have protected

Finally, we can take away an understanding that interfaith dialogue isn’t “wokeness taking over,” or the erasure of Notre Dame’s Catholic identity, but a fulfillment of our Catholic mission.

Obviously, the Rover’s language isn’t as provocative as that of Jonathan Edwards, but it insidiously holds much of the same exclusive philosophy undergirding it. For those who disagree, we end on the following prompt: It seems that proponents of a limited form of interfaith dialogue forget that our University’s Savior was himself not Christian. Would Jesus and his Apostles have been allowed to host the Last Supper, which was likely a celebration of the Jewish holiday Passover, at Notre Dame if Puritan Catholics had their way?

Dane Sherman is a junior at Notre Dame studying American Studies, peace studies, philosophy and gender studies. Dane enjoys good company, good books, good food and talking about faith in public life. Outside of The Observer, Dane can be found exploring Erasmus books with friends, researching philosophy, with folks from Prism, reading NYTs op-eds from David Brooks/Ezra Klein/Michelle Goldberg or at the Purple Porch getting some food. Dane ALWAYS wants to chat and can be reached at @danesherm on twitter or [email protected]

Blake Ziegler is a senior at Notre Dame studying political science, philosophy and constitutional studies. He enjoys writing about Judaism, the good life, pressing political issues and more. Outside of The Observer, Blake serves as president of the Jewish Club and a teaching assistant for God and the Good Life. He can be reached at @NewsWithZig on Twitter or [email protected]

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About Dane Sherman

Dane Sherman is a first year Philosophy major from Seattle, Washington.

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About Blake Ziegler

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