Tom and Jerry: Defenders of All Things Right and Good

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

My Letter to the Notre Dame Board of Fellows - Part 1

I wrote this letter earlier this week, and sent it to each of the 12 members of the University of Notre Dame's Board of Fellows, who are meeting on Friday (8/21). The letter was 4 1/2 pages long (in MS Word), so I'll reproduce it here in two installments.


Dear ___________,

As you prepare for the meeting of the University of Notre Dame Board of Fellows on August 21, I write to you as a devoted alumnus who, in conjunction with The Sycamore Trust alumni organization, has concerns about the direction the University has been traveling both recently and in the last few decades.

As the "Great Obama Kerfluffle of Spring 2009" unfolded, quite a few mentions were made, both by those who were thrilled with and those who were upset by the choice of commencement speaker and honorary doctorate in Law recipient, of the 1968
Land O' Lakes Statement that Notre Dame President Emeritus Fr. Theodore Hesburgh had been a prime figure in drafting.  Depending on the writer’s position on the Obama matter, it was, as you may imagine, cited as either the greatest or worst thing ever to happen to Catholic higher education in America.  As I believe that both the vision put forth in Land O' Lakes and Notre Dame’s experience over the subsequent 40 years in implementing it are enormously important to Notre Dame’s status and future as a Catholic university that is both truly Catholic and truly a university, and therefore worthy of important discussion and reflection, I’ll begin there.

Land O' Lakes statement was a very ambitious document with a very ambitious vision for Catholic higher education, and the vision contained therein has borne a lot of good fruit for Notre Dame in particular and Catholic education in general.  However, like any ambitious undertaking, the implementation of its vision also resulted in unintended and unforeseen consequences that have served to illuminate any shortcomings and/or overreaches in that vision.  The flaw of the document, and therefore the vision, was that successful fruition of such a vision would depend upon three aspects, none of which Notre Dame (or most Catholic universities, for that matter) currently possesses:

1)  Strong Leadership At The Top - Having autonomy from the hierarchical Church without having the university veer - drastically or gradually - away from the faith that founded it will only work if you have a strong leader that will keep the whole enterprise (and the various factions within) on course.  Father Hesburgh, with his enormous clout and the (extremely underrated, in my opinion) contribution of Father Edmund Joyce, was able to provide such leadership.  It is neither novel nor mean-spirited of me to point out that, since the retirement of "Ted and Ned", there has been under the Dome a rather noticeable decline in consistent leadership from the top levels of the administration in regards to maintaining and enhancing Notre Dame’s Catholic identity.

2)  The Goodwill and Cooperation of the Faculty in Regards to Catholic Identity - Of course, without strong leadership articulating and reinforcing exactly what the clear definition of "Catholic identity" means, faculty members and groups within the faculty tend to break into factions, each with their own vision or visions. That the Faculty Senate, after a canvass of the faculty in 2008, declared that the University, in the hiring of faculty, should set aside any concerns as to the school’s Catholic identity, seems to indicate that out of this muddle of visions about the Catholic identity of Notre Dame – to even what such a phrase as "Catholic identity" actually means – the faculty’s interest in defining a such a vision in this regard has been shelved in favor of having no vision at all. To think that Notre Dame will continue to provide a full and vibrant Catholic education with a faculty comprised of more and more members that either do not share or do not value (or neither share nor value) the faith the school was founded on is to embrace a hope that is neither logically tenable nor statistically likely.

3) A Student Body Educated in their Faith - At the time of Land O' Lakes, your average Catholic college student entered the hallowed halls of ivy having had their Baltimore Catechism drilled into their heads, and now would take the next step of learning how to examine their faith (and its claims) critically.  For such a student well-schooled in the basics of the faith, voices of dissent and even hostility to Church teaching provided a challenge and an opportunity for reflection, growth, and deepening of the understanding of their faith.  However, the last 30 some-odd years of Catholic doctrinal education for elementary through high school age has been an unmitigated disaster: your average teenage Catholic, whether he/she has gone to Catholic schools or had to rely on C.C.D. (which was rather markedly reduced during this time from "Confraternity of Christian Doctrine" to "Catechetically Clueless Daycare"), enters the challenge of higher education rather ignorant as to the basic beliefs of their faith.  They are thus ill-prepared to subject the claims of the Catholic faith - something they have only a tenuous grasp on to begin with - to higher criticism; for such a student, subjecting something they have only a superficial understanding of to higher criticism will merely overwhelm them, and serve only to reinforce the relativism and unhealthy skepticism (that is, a skepticism that is skeptical of everything except its own presuppositions) that they have absorbed as the default position of modern American culture.  The students themselves seemed to have sensed this, as from my days as an undergraduate student through to present time, I have seen an almost yearly call from student representatives for additional class offerings in the fundamentals of the Catholic faith.  Therefore, the model for educating the average Catholic college student proposed 40 years ago does not match the reality of the needs of the Catholic college student today.

Given this, is it not possible that Land O' Lakes went too far in its insistence on total autonomy from the institutional Church?  Surely, for Notre Dame to be a true university, the institutional Church cannot be the only voice that matters, nor need it even be the primary voice; however, for Notre Dame to be a truly Catholic university, does not the institutional Church deserve to have a place at the table - perhaps, even a privileged one?  Could there not be a fertile middle ground between the extreme positions of either a) Notre Dame being governed by Rome or its founding order on one hand or b) total autonomy on the other?  Must every suggestion that Notre Dame’s Catholic identity could benefit from a more constructive involvement with the institutional Church be met with outcries that those doing the suggesting are trying to turn Notre Dame into a pseudo-seminary?


Tune in later this week for Part 2....


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