In Defense of Notre Dame

Here’s what a Domer I am: I googled “Notre Dame” and was confused when the Parisian basilica popped up. “That’s not the Basilica….” (Props to Carroll Hall for the killer sign. Too bad nobody could see it way over on the other side of the lake.)

When I tell people I went to Notre Dame (or, you know, unintentionally scream “GO IRISH!” when someone mentions football or South Bend or politics or candy corn or…well, basically anything), I usually get one of two reactions:

  1. *awed* “Oh, wow. You must be really smart.”
  2. *skeptical* “Really? I thought you were so Catholic….”

It’s the second response I want to address here. The first is awkward, but not something I feel terribly compelled to contradict.

In honor of Saturday’s opening game (vs. Navy in Ireland–how cool is that??), I’m going to take a moment in defense of Notre Dame.

I know there’s been some shady business over the years and I know there are some heterodox professors on faculty and I know you’ll never get over the Obama debacle, but I think we have to remember something very important about Notre Dame: as far as I know, Notre Dame is the only university that’s really trying to be a top 20 research university and a school with a genuine, meaningful Catholic identity.

In fact, only Georgetown and Boston College manage to crack the top 50 colleges, according to U.S. News and World Report.1 So we’re already down to three on our list of top Catholic universities, and if you’ve spent any time at BC or Georgetown lately, I think it’s pretty easy to cross them off the list. Not that they’re not good schools, or even good places to be Catholic. I don’t know enough about the schools to deny them the title “Catholic,” but the difficulty I’ve had in finding a chapel on either campus combines with anecdotes about crucifixes removed from classrooms to leave me less than optimistic.

Now, I’m not saying that all Catholic colleges need to be nationally-ranked research universities. Our Church and our world need TAC and Franciscan and Benedictine. But I think we also need Notre Dame.

You see, not everyone’s going to fit in at Christendom. And Thomas More’s a great place, but what if you want to be an engineer? And as amazing as some of Dallas’s classes might be, there are those of us who really need to be at a school as challenging as Notre Dame.

But forget us good little Catholic kids for a minute; I think Notre Dame is uniquely able to evangelize the intellectual elite. You see, an atheist with a perfect SAT score just doesn’t go to Ave Maria. He might, however, go to Notre Dame. Because when Princeton Review asked parents their dream school for their kids, Notre Dame came in fourth. Because our undergrad business school’s been the best in the country for the past 3 years. That’s right, better than Wharton. Because our alums make bank–payscale.com rates ND 10th when it comes to a return on your investment. Because, whatever those numbers mean, rankings matter to people, and no other truly Catholic institution comes close.

And then one day he’s trying to get to lunch and there’s a Eucharistic procession in the way.

So our unchurched little brainiac (let’s call him Gus) finds himself walking across God Quad his freshman year, looking up at Mary on the top of the dome. He walks down the sidewalks that form a heart (the Sacred Heart) when his roommate asks him if he’s going to the JACC for Mass. Well, Gus sure wasn’t planning on it, but his roommate is a legacy and knows that everyone goes to the beginning of the school year Mass, so Gus goes to Mass for the first time. He takes a required theology class and goes on freshman retreat, because everybody goes on freshman retreat. He starts going to Mass in his dorm on Sunday nights because everybody else is there. He stops at the Grotto after running around the lakes; at first, it’s just because there’s a water fountain there, but eventually the aura of prayer starts to get to him. He tries to avoid religious debates, but he can’t help it–almost everyone, it seems, has a religion, and everyone has an opinion.

Gus has a good heart, so he wants to get involved in some kind of service. There’s a commissioning Mass for that. Turns out there’s a commissioning Mass for almost everything. He walks past a chapel on his way to his dorm room, his finance class, his advisor’s office, his calculus class, his service project seminar, and his philosophy class. Eventually, he starts to go in. A cute girl invites him to adoration and before he knows it, he’s stopping in before his run a few times a week.

Gus is so immersed in Catholicism–entirely by accident–that he begins to wonder. His wondering leads him to questioning. At first, his Catholic friends are enough, but eventually he starts meeting with theology professors and the ubiquitous Holy Cross priests. By the time he graduates, Gus is Catholic. Because of Notre Dame.

It’s not an unusual story, although most of my friends who converted because of Notre Dame started off as Protestants, not atheists. Most are “just” good Catholics now, although I also know a Franciscan friar, a theology professor, and, you know, Alasdair Macintyre and Knute Rockne, NBD. Not to mention the many, many lapsed Catholics I know who found the Church once more through their time at Notre Dame: priests and religion teachers and Sisters and mothers and missionaries and members of the body of Christ.

And maybe Gus would have converted eventually anyway; but there’s something about Notre Dame, something about the way Catholicism is a part of everything, that brings the Church before your eyes in a way that it wouldn’t be at Rice or Duke or Northwestern or other elite institutions. Somebody’s got to be reaching out to the brainy kids–Catholic or not–while they’re in college.

Beyond just evangelizing, Notre Dame’s status as a top 20 school gives it intellectual and even political clout, along with the ability to hire the best of the best. When Fr. Jenkins tries to walk the tightrope between Catholic identity and intellectual integrity, I don’t think he’s trying to compromise with the world–I think he’s trying to transform the world in a way that is uniquely possible at Notre Dame. Our high ranking is the very reason that this letter meant more to the media than all the others announcing lawsuits across the country. You can’t be as influential as Notre Dame is–on an individual level and a societal level–unless you can play ball academically.

In an effort to hang with the Ivies, I think Fr. Jenkins has perhaps swung too far in the direction of academic freedom a number of times. But I don’t think he has the luxury of requiring an oath of obedience to the Magisterium or inviting only speakers who uphold Catholic teaching or even banning anti-Catholic books or classes or plays. The administration of Our Lady’s University has to be in the world in a way that all the Catholic colleges mentioned above can reject. Those schools are ministering to the flock, but Notre Dame, I think, is ministering to the world.

“God, Country, Notre Dame” is one of our catch phrases. If I ever see this car, I will set up camp next to it until the owners come back. Then I will ask pathetically if they will be my friends. This license plate is awesome.

People say that Notre Dame is a microcosm of American Catholicism. You’ve got your Sunday Catholics, your social justice Catholics, your traddies, your lapsed Catholics, your charismatics, your hypocrites, your liberals, your conservatives–in the words of James Joyce, “Here comes everybody.” No, we’re not a beacon of holiness for all the world, but for all our faults, we are very, very Catholic.

And though the Irish may screw up in big and embarrassing ways, and though you may disagree with the administration’s decisions, and though there’s a lot going on at ND that isn’t very Catholic, let me leave you with this: according to my informal count, there are at least 161 Masses offered on Notre Dame’s campus every week; there are 168 hours in a week. Eucharistic adoration is available 40 hours a week. Want meat on a Friday in Lent? Better go to Burger King–there isn’t any in the dining hall. There’s a chapel in every dorm and most of the academic buildings. Confessions are scheduled at least 15 times a week and the line is usually around the corner. If you can’t make it any of those times, there are priests living in every men’s dorm and many of the women’s.2 Oh, and did I mention single sex dorms? We’re not barbarians, after all.3 At the end of the day, you can’t escape Catholicism at Notre Dame; over the years, many find that they don’t want to.

If my imaginary friend Gus had been a freshman with me, I can imagine he would have found himself swimming the Tiber a lot earlier. Less than a month into my career at Notre Dame, the Twin Towers fell. We cried and waited by phones and went to the Grotto, Catholics and non-Catholics alike. And that afternoon, 7,000 of us gathered for Mass on South Quad. On a campus of 8,000 undergrads, that speaks volumes. When tragedy struck, we ran together to God. We put our hands on the shoulders of strangers as they wept and we prayed the best way we knew how: the Catholic Mass.

Mass on September 11, 2001.

Is Notre Dame Catholic? Yes, in every sense of the word. She is flawed and blemished and made up of struggling sinners, and I love her despite–and because of–all those flaws. I pray for her and her administration and I trust that God will continue to bring good through Our Lady’s University.

Love thee, Notre Dame!

  1. Forbes–which lists Notre Dame at 12 rather than 19–includes Holy Cross as well, but they list Cornell as 51, so I’m not sure what their criteria are…. []
  2. I graduated 6 years ago, but from what I can tell, this is still true. []
  3. #sarcasm []

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About Meg

I'm a Catholic, madly in love with the Lord, His Word, His Bride the Church, and especially His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the Eucharist. I'm committed to the Church not because I was raised this way but because the Lord has drawn my heart and convicted my reason. After 2 degrees in theology and 5 years in the classroom, I quit my 9-5 to follow Christ more literally. Since May of 2012, I've been a hobo for Christ; I live out of my car and travel the country speaking to youth and adults, giving retreats, blogging, and trying to rock the world for Jesus.
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17 Responses to In Defense of Notre Dame

  1. Erin Kimbell says:

    Thanks for such a wonderful defense, Meg! I’m a very proud 3rd generation double Domer. I’ve found my vocation in elementary Catholic education – mostly due to the amazing Catholic education I’ve experienced since kindergarten. I’m just trying to do my part to give back to the institution that gave me so much. Love thee Notre Dame!

  2. GFlo says:

    Well said Meg! Couldn’t agree more.

  3. Beth says:

    Carroll hall is defunct?!

  4. Chrissy says:

    Several years ago I tried to count the number of chapels, each of which has the Eucharist reserved in its tabernacle. I came up with at least 40, and that was before the new dorms.

  5. Chrissy says:

    Oh, and ditto about Carroll… it’s still an active dorm, at least according to ND’s housing page.

  6. Saint Louis U. Catholic says:

    I saw this posted on FB. It’s a nice post. I have worked at two Catholic universities, and attended Boston College first as an undergrad, and later as a doctoral student in theology. What surprises me first is the circles that Meg runs in: they must be very narrow if nobody thinks ND is solidly or perhaps too Catholic. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a very conservative school with a very Catholic identity.

    The second is the line of argument: no it’s not perfect, but it’s a great place to be a Catholic, and a lot of people respond to the atmosphere by becoming more Catholic. It’s exactly this experience that had led me to stick up for Boston College. I had stopped going to mass when I entered college: I was a daily mass attending, theology studying, enthusiastic defender of the Church when I left. No, BC is not a top 20 school, but it is the type of place that will draw students who are different, and diverse, because of its academic pedigree.

    At SLU, where I now teach, I’m astonished by the number of faculty and students who convert, in part through their positive experiences with the Catholics here. Every year since I’ve been here, at least one graduate student in theology, formerly staunch Evangelic or other stripe of Protestant, is coming into the church by Easter.

    What disappoints me in the article is that Meg takes the same smug attitude of dismissal towards places like BC and Georgetown, based in misinformed innuendo or gossip (plenty of crosses at BC, and plenty of chapels on campus, albeit not in every dorm), which she chides if directed toward Notre Dame.

    I am glad for the good things that ND does, and have been very impressed with the way they’ve been able to maintain their Catholic identity. They probably do it better than most Catholic schools. But equating mixed sex dorms with barbarianism is, well, not very Catholic.

    I hope this riposte is read in the best possible light, and I wish peace and grace on all who read it.

    • Meg says:

      I’m so glad to hear that you had a good experience at BC and that good things are happening at SLU, too! I knew in writing this that I would step on some toes but I didn’t know of any way to keep it short enough to read without painting with broad strokes. I’m sorry if what I said sounded like smug dismissal–in retrospect, both of those anecdotes are from Georgetown, although I’ve been told by BC alums of experiences in the same vein. What I’m trying to say isn’t that there’s no Catholicism left at BC but that ND envisions itself as a Catholic university in a much more holistic way, from what I can tell, than BC does.

      I’d love to hear it if other people have had similar experiences at BC and Georgetown to what I’m describing at ND; these have not been the experiences of any alums I’ve spoken with, nor has the time I’ve spent on each campus suggested to me that those schools (good schools, both) are Catholic in the same way Notre Dame is trying to be.

      As far as the barbarian comment, I was going for humorous hyperbole–it’s always hard to gauge whether that’ll come out right in writing.

      I appreciate the civil tone and wish you well in your work at SLU–God bless!

  7. Rick Garnett says:

    What a wonderful piece, which says better than I have what I’ve so often *tried* to say to Notre Dame’s critics. Thank you for writing it!

  8. Bill Dempsey says:

    This is an obviously heartfelt paean to Notre Dame because of its many fine qualities, but it is a vast overstatement to claim that Notre Dame is Catholic “in every sense of the word.” In fact, except for the law and business schools, it is not Catholic in the most important sense of the word for a Catholic university — in the classroom. We know that because the University tells us so. The University declares in its Mission Statement that its Catholic identity “depends upon” having a majority of Catholics on the faculty — a test prescribed also by Pope John Paul II and the American bishops. With a mere 54% who have simply checked the “Catholic” box on a form, Notre Dame plainly does not come close once even the most conservative discount for nominal Catholics (not to mention dissenting Catholics) is made. Nationally, only 65% of self-declared Catholics attend Mass as much as once a month. I doubt anyone at Notre Dame would place the percentage of practicing Catholics on the faculty as high as 40%.
    This is why long-time respected professor Alfred Freddoso has memorably characterized Notre Dame as “something like a public school in a Catholic neighborhood.” Ms. Hunter-Kilmer focuses entirely on the “neighborhood,” as do so many others. They all miss the point of legitimate and well-founded criticism.
    Not of course that the “neighborhood” is unimportant. It is simply that parents who sacrifice so much to send their children to Notre Dame because they think it Catholic do so so they will receive a Catholic education as well as residing in a Catholic “neighborhood.”

    Professor Freddoso’s insightful essay anticipates fully Ms. Hunter-Kilmer’s defense of Notre Dame:

    “This is … what the vast majority of present-day administrators, faculty members, students, and alumni mean when they sincerely, though mistakenly, claim that Notre Dame is a Catholic university. For they assume … that the Catholic character of the university is borne almost entirely by the “neighborhood,” i.e., by the university’s sacramental life and associated activities such as retreats, bible study groups, sacramental preparation courses, etc.; by various good works and service projects …; by a set of faith-inspired rules governing campus life …; and by the sheer number of … manifestations of Catholicism such as the statute of Our Lady atop the Golden Dome, Sacred Heart Basilica, the Grotto, the “Touchdown Jesus” mural, and scores of statues found all over the “neighborhood.” It is here that virtually all of a student’s moral and spiritual formation, if any, will take place. This is where “faith” resides on campus; this is where the “heart” is educated, to use another of the catchphrases.

    “The classroom or laboratory, by contrast, is a wholly different venue …. This is where “reason” resides and where “the mind” is educated, and it has little or nothing to do with Catholicism. (It is no accident that the newest science building … contains no noteworthy religious symbols in general and no noteworthy Catholic symbols in particular. That’s the way the science faculty wanted it.)”

    To be sure, as Professor Freddoso adds, there are still enough Catholic professors so that a discriminating student can secure a sound Catholic education. But for the vast majority, it is a matter of luck against long odds.

    Sycamore Trust, an organization of Notre Dame alumni and others who love Notre Dame but are deeply concerned about the erosion of its Catholic character, has for seven years studied and reported on all aspects of the matter. A large library of information and commentary is on its web site, http://www.sycamoretrust.org.

    Notre Dame is too precious a place and too important to the Church for anyone, including especially alumni, to overlook the deterioration of its Catholic identity as a university out of appreciation for its many fine Catholic aspects as a Catholic “neighborhood” and provocation by often misdirected and reckless criticism.

  9. Rick Garnett says:

    My friends Mr. Dempsey and Prof. Freddoso are correct, certainly, that a meaningfully and interestingly Catholic university must be more than a good research university in a “Catholic neighborhood.” They are also right that such a Catholic university — and, the University of Notre Dame, in particular — has to attend carefully to the important, never-complete task of identifying, hiring, and recruiting Catholic and other faculty who are committed to (and not merely resigned to) the (meaningfully and interestingly) Catholic character of that university.

    That said, three quick things: First, “it’s not nothing” that Notre Dame’s “neighborhood” is so Catholic — more so than is the case at any other major Catholic university. Second, even if we admit, as we should, that the Catholic character should affect what happens in the classroom more than it does at present, we shouldn’t think that Notre Dame’s Catholic character is limited to what happens in the chapels or to student groups’ activities, or to private prayer. There is a lot of (for lack of a better word) “programming” at Notre Dame that is beautifully and deeply Catholic, and that does a great deal of service to the Church. Finally, while there’s a lot of work to be done when it comes to faculty hiring, it is the case that a great many recent hires of top-tier scholars from other schools *have* been “mission” hires. Notre Dame today is attracting and hiring leading scholars *precisely* because it is Catholic. This is a good thing, and it bodes well.

  10. Lev says:

    I’ve been at ND for 8 years now and I completely disagree with you. Sure, it is true that there are 160 some odd Masses a week on campus and all these opportunities for prayer and worship and reconciliation. The fact is, that even when all these are available, there is only a very small percentage of truly devout Catholic students on campus who attend these Masses. And as for the single sex dorms, that’s like saying they don’t sell beer in the dorms so no one drinks. Saying this much will suffice for now, but I assure you that there is more where this came from. The university, it’s faculty/staff/administrators, and students are always in my prayers. And I encourage everyone to pray for them as well. This so-called Catholic institution is in dire need of reform.

  11. Jeanne Adler says:

    I enjoyed reading this article however I must say that the world perceives that ND has lost its identity because of the Doctoral Degree which was bestowed on Barack Obama.
    This man was at that time one of the most outspoken anti-Christian individuals who ever walked the walls of Congress.
    God help all of us if we can be proud of what ND did.

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