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March 23 - April 5, 2014

What should a Catholic university be like?

By Michelle Martin

Staff Writer

Make no mistake about it: Holy Cross Father Wilson Miscamble loves the University of Notre Dame.

But Miscamble, who has taught at Notre Dame for more than 25 years, thinks the university is coming dangerously close to denying its own Catholic identity, at least in core areas such as research and teaching, and it’s doing so at a time when other Catholic universities are doing the same thing, Miscamble said in a March 11 lecture. Miscamble, a professor of history at Notre Dame, is the visiting 2014 Paluch Professor of Theology at Mundelein Seminary this year, and he shared his thoughts in the seminary’s Chester and Margaret Paluch Lecture titled “What is the Future for Notre Dame? The Battle for the Soul of America’s Foremost Catholic University.”

The problem, Miscamble said, is that while Notre Dame likes to polish its image of faithful piety — and has taken an important step by suing over the HHS mandate that would require it to provide health insurance coverage for contraceptives and sterilizations — it no longer sees its mission as educating Catholic leaders, teaching them the knowledge and the virtues they will need to lead good and effective Catholic lives. That, he said, should be the goal of any Catholic university.

“We should expect Catholic universities to be explicitly engaged in an effort to train a new generation of Catholic leaders,” said Miscamble, who covered the same topic in his book “For Notre Dame: Battling for the Heart and Soul of a Catholic University” (St. Augustine’s Press, 2013).

But that’s difficult in a university where a declining percentage of the faculty is Catholic or even understanding of and sympathetic to church teaching, where a core curriculum has become fragmented with “hit or miss” philosophy and theology requirements, he said.

Instead, the university is following the path of former Protestant universities, such as Duke and Vanderbilt, that have become entirely secular. The steps are clear: focusing on its aspiration to be an “academic player” in American and international higher education; disconnecting faith from reason dismantling the core curriculum that all students should master; moving the faculty from being rife with progressive Catholics to being populated with instructors either ignorant about or hostile to Catholicism; and the ascendance of an administration with no clear vision of Catholic higher education.

“The university’s Catholic mission is under challenge, and has been for some time,” Miscamble said. “There is a real struggle over the university’s present and future course. … Too often, Notre Dame settles for a kind of Catholic gloss that satisfies our busy alumni. If the university cannot say how it is that the curriculum is different from secular universities, then they are shortchanging their students.”

He called on those alumni and the university’s donors to join with other stakeholders — students, parents, faculty, even his Holy Cross order — to demand a more intrinsic expression of the school’s Catholic identity.

That’s not to say that there is no authentic Catholic expression at the school, Miscamble said, naming the Alliance for Catholic Education, in which young teachers are sent to financially strapped Catholic schools, and the Center for Ethics and Culture as two highlights. Students who really want to can also obtain an authentically Catholic education, he said, but they must search out right classes and right teachers.

Father Robert Barron, the rector/president of Mundelein Seminary/University of St. Mary of the Lake, gave a response, and generally agreed with Miscamble’s call for renewed emphasis on Catholic identity at Notre Dame. He traced the decline of Catholic identity among universities to the 1967 Land O Lakes Conference and the statement that was signed by participating university leaders. That statement, Barron said, gave primacy to the ideals of the modern university over the ideals of the Catholic faith.

But Barron said he also sees reason for hope in the students at Notre Dame, those who can be found praying in the Grotto at all hours of the day and night, those who prayerfully participate in Sunday evening Masses in their residence halls, those who choose Notre Dame because they want a Catholic university.

“There is something there,” Barron said.