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:
- *awed* “Oh, wow. You must be really smart.”
- *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.
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.
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.
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!