What Happened To Notre Dame?
[a review of Charles E. Rice's new book from St. Augustine's Press]
By Christopher Manion for the Wanderer
A few weeks into Notre Dame’s Fall semester of 1949, a sleeping freshman was jostled awake by a couple of upperclassmen.
“Hey, fella,” they shouted, “hey, we just wanna know -- how did you get into Notre Dame if you’re not Catholic?”
That awakened the sleeper in a heartbeat. “Whaddya mean, ‘not Catholic,’” he retorted. “Of course I’m Catholic!”
“Then why don’t you go to Mass!” they sternly replied.
That freshman became one of our family’s best friends – and one of Notre Dame’s most passionate alumni. All his life, he attributed his profound faith and his ardent love of Holy Mother Church and our Blessed Mother to Notre Dame. For him, and for generations of the Fighting Irish, Notre Dame was the exemplar of the Catholic Faith.
But times have changed.
“What happened to Notre Dame?” I have heard that question countless times since I graduated forty years ago. A ready answer does not come easily to mind. After all, Knute Rockne, Notre Dame’s legendary football coach, used to tell my father (who started teaching there in 1919), “You should never spit on a man’s head if you’re standing on his shoulders.” And countless thousands of Notre Dame alumni undoubtedly owe their academic, their professional, and even their spiritual formation to Notre Dame. How can they criticize Notre Dame if they are “standing on its shoulders”?
Everything good about Notre Dame comes from God. For a century and more, the Holy Catholic Church and the salvation of souls was Notre Dame’s sole reason for being. By the 1960s, however, Notre Dame had grown weary of “standing on the shoulders” of the Church. Like a wayward spouse, it longed for independence, to be of the world as well as in it. Finally, with Land O’Lakes in 1967, Notre Dame filed for divorce. “For the sake of the children” (its students and alumni) and money (their financial support), it continued to project a public façade of harmony between the Church and its own secular relativism. But Notre Dame was simply trying to serve two masters, keeping up its Catholic appearances while sinking ever deeper into the mire of worldly infidelity. Last May, the flimsy façade finally came crashing down.
Hey, Wake Up!
The timing of even the most inevitable earthquake is hard to predict. But for years, Notre Dame has been poised athwart a widening chasm that makes the San Andreas Fault look like the Rock of Gibraltar. Charles E. Rice, Professor of Constitutional Law at Notre Dame since 1968, has long been a defensor fide there. His column in the campus newspaper regularly pierces the fog of faculty doubters like the siren of a Catholic Rescue Squad, racing to resuscitate victims who have been run over by hit-and-run heterodoxy. His numerous books, his Wanderer columns, and his speeches and legislative testimony have made key contributions to the intellectual and legal defense of the Culture of Life in the United States. When “Old Notre Dame” collapsed for good with Barack Obama’s commencement appearance last spring, Dr. Rice went to work. With his new book, What Happened To Notre Dame, he once more rides to the rescue.
In the introduction, Notre Dame philosophy professor Fred Feddoso succinctly explains Obama’s visit: “Both sides had much to gain. President Obama could cloak himself in the mantle of Our Lady’s university as part of an ongoing campaign to solidify his standing among those many Catholic voters for whom life issues are not very important, or at least not overriding. The university, on the other hand, could reap the great public relations benefits of a presidential visit, once it survived what it undoubtedly expected to be a short-lived protest by the local bishop, John D’Arcy of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, and a few hardcore pro-life activists.”
Ever since, both Obama and Notre Dame have struggled to stay on message: “No big deal -- just a natural meeting of a great university and a great leader. Turn the page.”
Well, not just yet. Professor Freddoso limns Notre Dame’s transition from Catholic orthodoxy to national prominence, a course that Rice examines in detail. Freddoso’s ruminations conclude that “Notre Dame is a wonderful place in many ways. [But] What it is not is a Catholic university, i.e., an institution of higher learning where the Catholic faith pervades and enriches, and is itself enriched by, the intellectual life on campus.” Freddoso concludes with the arresting description of Notre Dame as “a public school in a Catholic neighborhood.” The kids are Catholic, but the education -- what is taught in the classroom -- “has little or nothing to do with Catholicism.”
In celebrating Obama last May, University President Father John Jenkins was giddy with exultation. All that was missing was a tattoo across his forehead, proclaiming, “Fighting Irish Welcome O’Bama.” Rice zeroes in on the telling moment, early in Obama’s address, when a voice from the cheap seats shouted, “abortion is murder!” Immediately the students answered with a roar, shouting Obama’s campaign slogan (“Yes we can!”) and their favorite football cheer (“We are N. D. !!”).
How could it be that the kids from the “Catholic Neighborhood” were cheering the premier advocate of abortion in the western world? Perhaps the students were not just cheering Obama. They were cheering Father Jenkins, who had defeated their arch-rivals. And who were the bad guys? Not Michigan State or Southern Cal, but the Church, the orthodox faithful, the old alumni, and, ultimately, the Magisterium.
Notre Dame As A Lesson For Everyone
Always the master teacher, Rice examines the Obama appearance with precision. He then moves to a deeper consideration of the principles that inform Catholic education, and compares them with the conflicting assumptions and key events that have made Notre Dame “a small Purdue with a Golden Dome” that eventually collapsed into the arms of modernity with a longing for money, prestige, and worldly “success.” Over the years, Notre Dame has built a very expensive house of cards designed to serve two masters – the modern secular world of the intellectual, political, and cultural elite, on the one hand, and traditional Catholic faithful and alumni, on the other. With Obama’s appearance, those cards came tumbling down. One by one, Rice lays them face up on the table.
In one example, Rice addresses Notre Dame’s desire to be a “research university,” which brings in millions in grants, but gives the back of the hand to undergraduate education. Almost anticipating this criticism, Notre Dame broadcast an infomercial during its season opener in September touting its role “as a premier research university [that] works to pursue a cure for .. rare diseases often overlooked by mainstream science.” The irony? Right under its nose, there is a very widespread disease, all the more dangerous because it is so rarely detected – a loss of faith, a dalliance with the culture of death, a celebration of modernity, and an abandonment of the university’s responsibility to provide a Catholic education.
Rice’s book is not a polemic but a roadmap. “In its historical acceptance of its full Catholic character, including the teaching authority of the Church, Notre Dame had it all. And then walked away from it,” he concludes. The remedy? Return – not to the past, but to the timeless truths that the “Fighting Irish” used to cheer and fight and die for – the truths of the Faith, our firm defense against the dictatorship of relativism.
Christopher Manion won the Father Hesburgh Prize in 1968.