Thursday, April 2, 2015

Becoming More Catholic?

In his recent book on Catholic higher education, Christian Smith praises the mission statement of Notre Dame, where he now teaches. He notes that at Notre Dame the ideal is to
seek to combine excellence in undergraduate education with maintaining a serious Catholic identity, character, and mission . . . [and] to engage in the highest quality original research, scholarship, and publishing in the sciences and humanities in an attempt to become a great research university.
(Christian Smith and John C. Cavadini, Building Catholic Higher Education [Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2014], xv.)
Smith notes that, "Realizing these three goals together is nearly impossible, though I refuse to say absolutely hopeless." (ibid.) Why? Smith explains:
Strong, almost irresistible sociological forces cause most religious colleges and universities to either (a) secularize on matters of faith (and prioritize research achievements--not that that necessarily leads to impressive results, as often it leads to mediocrity) or (b) become religiously sectarian (and sacrifice research achievements). Notre Dame can look to no successful existing models for realizing its combined goals in research, undergraduate education, and Catholic character.
(Smith and Cavadini, Building Catholic Higher Education, 39-40)
Smith thinks that this can only be done "by growing the Catholicism of both its academic programs and its faculty" (ibid., 28).

Smith garners hope from Notre Dame's recent(?) mission statement (ibid., 1-37). I wish Notre Dame the best and hope that Smith succeeds in his aspirations. There is reason to be somewhat dubious about the prospects though.

James T. Burtchaell in his impressive survey of seventeen representative Christian colleges that abandoned their faiths noted the following:
Almost without exception a rhetoric of concern began on these campuses just as the critical turn had been made. When the covenants and statements of purpose and conferences on the church relationship were produced, they served as a distraction from the fact that the turn had already passed the point of no return. It was common for educators and church executives to express their concern that their college could, or might, follow others into secularity, a decade or so after such misgivings had become useless. From another point of view they were not quite useless, because their real function was to provide cover and time for the new commitment to take hold. Also, these vision statements and preambles to bylaws invariably addressed outcomes instead of causes. For instance, they easily spoke of the college persevering in its offer of Christian values, but never of hiring those who could and would do the offering. While working on the menu they declined to hire a cook.
(James Tunstead Burtchaell, The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from their Christian Churches [Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1998], 833-34.)
I wish Notre Dame the best in keeping their university Catholic. Notre Dame deserves neither mediocrity nor secularism.