Looking back, I can recall times when one would be impressed with the realization – the probable reality – that there are very few physical and spiritual places like Notre Dame, very few places on earth entirely dedicated to the life of the mind inspired by the life of the Spirit. Such memories serve to remind one that such a precious heritage is worth our efforts to maintain
Dr. Daniel M. Boland
e-mail to Project Sycamore
The core mission of Project Sycamore is to assist in the protection of the “precious heritage” invoked by Dr. Boland from the secularization that has undermined the Catholic identity of so many other major Catholic universities.
The threshold question for many alumni doubtless will be why there should be any concern. The Vagina Monologues controversy provides a clue. As we have noted, several distinguished faculty members who participated in panels during Alumni Weekend considered the Vagina Monologues controversy significant principally because the faculty ferment over the play’s threatened demise, together with Father Jenkins’ unexpected change of mind, signaled a weakening of Catholic identity and represented another in a succession of small steps in a process of secularization already well advanced. It is not only the radical clash of the play with Catholic teaching and culture that is implicated, but also the absence of any evident engagement with the Church’s central document on academic freedom in a Catholic institution, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, or with the thoughtful statements by Bishop D’Arcy, whose long and deep affection for Notre Dame is near legendary. As Dr. John C. Cavadini, the Chair of the Theology Department, put it, “It is as though the mere mention of a relationship with the Church has become so alien to our way of thinking and so offensive to our quest for a disembodied ‘excellence’ that it has become impolite to mention it at all.”
Still, many might fairly wonder whether this concern is not overblown. Surely a visit to campus, where one cannot fail to sense the presence of a vibrant spiritual life, is reassuring. The signs appear everywhere, from the first glimpse of Our Lady watching over all, to the luminosity of Sacred Heart Basilica, to the crowded Masses, to the serenity of the Grotto. And there is student faith in action in many forms that the visitor cannot see, perhaps most notably the dedication of a great many students to the service of those in need. So, too, are elements of the faculty involved in a host of activities proper to an important center of Catholic learning. See, e.g., the projects described in the Dean's Report 2005 of Dr. Mark W. Roche, Dean of the College of Arts and Letters.
Such signs of religious vitality, however, can be, and often are, seriously misleading, as James Tunsted Burtchaell, C.S.C., points out in his landmark study of the secularization of church-established colleges and universities, The Dying of the Light. Father Burtchaell, a former Notre Dame Provost, found that “[a]lmost without exception a rhetoric of concern began...just as the critical turn had already been made.” Id. at 833. The faculty, he reported, was “the first constituency to lose interest in their colleges being Lutheran or Catholic or Congregational,” and the faculty may already have been transformed “while the student body continued to be recruited from the traditional clientele.” Id. at 828-29, 837-38. With such a student body, outward appearances may quite naturally remain unaffected. Thus, “ ... [U]usually... the change of a college or university’s character went largely unnoticed because of the stability of cultural symbols, which altered more slowly.” Id. at 837.
The point is made in words remarkably apt for present purposes by James R. Stoner, Jr., drawing upon another study by a Notre Dame scholar, George M. Marsden, in the basic work in this field prior to Father Burtchaell’s. See Marsden, The Soul of the American University. Having described the secularization of the faculty and academic programs in Protestant institutions during the first half of the 20th century, Professor Stoner notes that the “full meaning” of these changes “was hidden for a long time – not least from the universities’ alumni – by the continued extracurricular religious life of the students.....But the shell cannot survive forever without the living organism....” (Theology as Knowledge)
This scenario has played out time and again, first in Protestant and later, beginning in the 1960’s, in Catholic institutions. A decisive moment for Catholic schools came in 1967 with the adoption by 26 top Catholic educators of the Land O’Lakes Statement, which issued from a meeting called by Notre Dame President Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., as president of the International Federation of Catholic Universities. This statement, Father Burtchaell reports, set forth what became “the classic doctrine on how modern Catholic universities were to be defined primarily by their membership in the modern educational establishment.” Id. at 595. While debate about the full range of consequences of the statement has been intense, one set of results is undisputed, namely, the severing of formal ties with the institutional Church and the ending of control by founding religious orders.
In the wake of the passing of governance from religious to secular hands came the dilution of the sponsoring religion’s representation on the faculty. Thus, at Note Dame, as the graph on our home page shows, there has been a precipitous and unchecked reduction in the proportion of Catholic faculty members over the last several decades. Father Jenkins has marked the threat to Notre Dame’s “distinctive Catholic character” posed by this “steady decline,” which has resulted in a drop in Catholic representation from around 85% in the 1970’s to the current level of just over 52%. (The Observer of 10/12/05) Meanwhile, in accord with the pattern traced by Father Burtchaell, the student body remains 85% Catholic.
Moreover, this slim Catholic faculty majority will probably shortly become a minority through the combined effects of retirements and new hires, since a large majority of the retirees are Catholic whereas, as Dean Roche acknowledged, only 43% of new faculty hires in 2004–2005, and 35% of the new teaching-and-research faculty in 2005–2006 were Catholic. This, the Dean warned, “threatens Notre Dame’s capacity to realize its mission.” And if that happens, he continued, the Catholic “intellectual and cultural inheritance” will “likely continue to fragment and diminish throughout the academy,” because “Notre Dame is the only university with the resources to preserve and renew the Catholic intellectual and cultural inheritance in its fullness.” (Dean Roche’s report)
Two points of clarification are in order: First, as Father Jenkins emphasized, concern over the attenuation of Catholic faculty representation should not be taken to denigrate the notable contributions made by non-Catholic faculty. And, second, the impact of faculty counted as Catholic should be measured with due regard to reasonable presumptions as to the heterodoxy of some and the nominal character of church affiliation of others. The point is made by Naomi Schaffer Riley in her book God on the Quad. After interviews with a number of Notre Dame students and faculty, Ms. Riley concluded (pp. 55-56): “[T]he most important division within the faculty is not between Catholics and non-Catholics, but rather between those who take the school’s religious identity seriously and those who do not.”
On the continuum from an essentially Catholic faculty toward an essentially secular one, Notre Dame is plainly already far along. So far, indeed as to have already passed the line marked by the Mission Statement's affirmation that the “Catholic identity of the University depends upon... the presence of a predominant number of Catholic intellectuals.” See Sources. Surely a bare majority of just over two percent cannot be thought to reflect a “predominance.” And as a practical, rather than mathematical, matter, it is reasonable to assume that, in terms of the illumination of the sweep of Catholic thought, the capacity and disposition of a faculty in which only half are listed as Catholic will already have been substantially compromised.
There is significant supporting evidence for this assumption. For example, in his recently published autobiography, Dr. Ralph McInerny, a much-honored 50-year faculty member and former head of both the Medieval Institute and the Jacques Maritain Center, paints a bleak picture. Lamenting that “[p]ositions dubiously compatible with the faith are maintained and taught all around us,” he described this illustrative episode:
“A young colleague of mine announced at a departmental meeting that, since he regarded Catholicism as false, he had a moral obligation to disabuse his students of their faith. That is where we have come.” (I Alone Have Escaped to Tell You)
As to his department, philosophy, after discussing “the traditional roots” of Catholic philosophy, Dr. McInerney regretfully observed that the department now has “a majority of members for whom what I have been saying would be as intelligible as it would be at Meatball Tech.” Id. at 105. Again, Ms. Riley reported that Dr. David Solomon, another long-time professor of philosophy and now Director of the Center on Ethics & Culture, “worries that serious Catholics no longer dominate the faculty of the philosophy department” and, worse, that “there are only two Catholics under the age of forty-five.” Op. cit. supra p. 55. And if the Catholic character of the centrally important philosophy department has been so substantially weakened, the effects must be radiating through the liberal arts program.
The weakening of Catholic identity through the change in faculty composition has been exacerbated by major changes in the curriculum. Now, while elective courses afford the opportunity for a Catholic education, required courses do not provide it. There remain only six required Theology credits, only three of which must be in a specifically Catholic course. (undergradute requirements) Similarly, only six credits are required in Philosophy, none in courses necessarily taught from a Catholic perspective.
In sum, whether a student receives a grounding in Catholic doctrine and tradition depends on the luck of the draw as to teacher -- in the single required philosophy course he might, for example, be taught by a self-acknowledged atheist (Scholastic) -- together with his or her choice of courses. This attenuation of Catholic instruction is of special concern because of the religious illiteracy that characterizes so many college students and the ineffectiveness of Catholic colleges and universities in remedying that deficiency. (Are Catholic Colleges Leading Students Astray)
To his credit, Father Jenkins has candidly acknowledged the gravity of the problem and has committed substantial resources to its solution. (The Irish Rover) But the obstacles will be daunting, and past experience is disheartening. After Father Malloy in 2003 declared that “priority” should be given to hiring Catholics (Fulfilling the Promise), the rate promptly plummeted to new lows, as we have noted. Still worse, after Dean Roche in the 2005 statement we have cited above declared that the University would be unable to fulfill its mission unless the hiring trend was reversed, the rate continued at a meager 42%.
A principal reason for the ever-accelerating decline in Catholic hiring is that it is the faculty, not the President, that largely controls faculty hiring, and that, as a recent study has disclosed, a majority of the faculty are opposed to preferring Catholics. (Making Sense of a Religious University) A long-time philosophy professor put it succinctly:
“The real problem is that the hiring practices of the past thirty years have given is a faculty...that is more and more devoid of Catholic sensibilities....Father Jenkins sincerely wants to do something about it. The question is whether he will be able to. There is no group of people harder to deal with than entrenched university faculty.” (The Irish Rover)
Father Jenkins is not without residual resources to press for reform, to be sure; but he will likely need all the support and encouragement he can get. Project Sycamore is designed to provide it.
But it is not only the power of the faculty that has had, and will continue to have, a major impact on hiring patterns. The other principal factor has been, and will continue to be, the drive toward the academic pinnacle as defined by the secular academy. The conviction of a majority of the faculty that only scholarly status should govern hiring is a reflection of this ambition. (Making Sense of a Religious University) Moreover, the significance of this factor seems certain to grow. The next stage in this quest, as described by Father Jenkins in his opening address to faculty this year, is to secure recognition as one of the finest research institutions in the country. (Faculty Address) Thus, the future of Notre Dame as a truly Catholic university depends not only on whether Father Jenkins can overcome resistance by powerful elements of the faculty, but also on whether the impulse to accord priority to this magnified ambition for secular recognition can be controlled. Here again, the experience of the past several decades is scarcely encouraging.
Father Jenkins wants Notre Dame to achieve still higher secular commendation as a research institution that is sturdily Catholic. This is a worthy, courageous, and challenging goal, one that no other university has been able to achieve. A principal aim of Project Sycamore is to assist Father Jenkins in any way he may suggest while watching to see whether Catholic identity continues to fade as the price of secular acclaim
For additional discussion and materials, see
The Vagina Monologues on Catholic Campuses
Description of the Vagina Monologues
Effectiveness of the Panel Discussions
Notre Dame Voices
Queer Film Festival