Monday, June 14, 2010

A Good Public School In A Great Neighborhood

A few days ago I had the privilege of attending a talk by Dr. Fred Freddoso, professor of philosophy at Notre Dame. He spoke at the University of St. Thomas, in Houston. The text of Dr. Freddoso's talk is available here. Dr. Freddoso is a witty and resilient veteran of the theo-cultural wars that have been sputtering on among the Fighting Irish for several decades now.

Last spring Notre Dame awarded President Obama an honorary doctor of laws degree. President Obama's understanding of law is sharply anti-Catholic, as he believes doctors have a legal right to kill unborn children so long as their mothers consent. But Dr. Freddoso was not surprised by the award. In his reading, Notre Dame's Catholicism has been equivocal since the 1950s. At that time, Notre Dame became impatient with the pace of intellectual development in Catholic America and began to adopt secular models of education, even at the expense of its Catholic identity.

Dr. Freddoso laments the loss of that identity. But he knows that once one gives up the idea that Notre Dame is a Catholic university, the place looks fairly helpful from the Catholic point of view. Think of Notre Dame, he says, not as a Catholic school but rather as a "public school in a Catholic neighborhood." And indeed, the neighborhood does help shape the school. Notre Dame famously claims that over 50% of its faculty is Catholic. While Dr. Freddoso acknowledges--and wants it to be known--that many faculty who check the "Catholic" box on the form have not darkened the door of a church since childhood, he also notes that Notre Dame has a sizable number of genuinely Catholic faculty.

At bottom, Notre Dame is a secular university in which Catholicism has a more than average degree of influence. Whatever its past, this appears to be Notre Dame's present, and its future, as far as the eye can see.


  1. As a De Paul University graduate, who had the privledge of taking his LSAT at Notre Dame and with 3 cousins graduates of Notre Dame, I would disagree with the sweeping accusation of Dr. Fred Fred. I can say De Paul, with LGBT student groups and no visible Catholic icons in any classrooms and a largely secular University Ministry, a school which hosted a popular Catholic critic, in John Dominic Crossan, is the pretend Catholic University in the Midwest, which keeps tenous grip on its Roman Catholic identity by always naming a Vincentian as President. I was part of a Political Science club that helped bring Elenore Smeal to campus as a speaker when she was the head of NOW. Not because I cared for her agenda, but because it was a principle battle for student rights on the speaker's commitee. The Vincentians refused to pay her speaking fee, but we had a dance and a beer bust to raise the funds. But a recent former president, worked at the Protestant Northwestern University and had some interaction with counseling women who had had abortions is more representative of the DePaul presented to the public.

    DePaul's heritage is Missionary, decended from St. Vincent, and rooted like our Oblate experience in service to the poor. DePaul has long been the college choice of the Working Class of Chicago, housing a demographic where students were the first in their family to attend university. Notre Dame cannot make such a claim. Notre Dame did achieve academic achievement, but I think many other Catholic Universities in the last 40 years did so by escaping the suffocating grip of dogma and doctrine upon their curriculum. Whereas, Notre Dame's roots are educational, much like the Jesuits. De Paul only recently made inroads in having faculty pursue big research projects. It was for most of its history a teaching school, not a research school.

    Put Notre Dame's situation in context. At a time when the repository of intellectualism was centered in the eastern big cities, a little school on the Midwestern plain took a run at that East coast status quo and while not a threat to Harvard or Yale, has certainly raised the profile of Catholic Education in the United States. To do so may have required priortizing some of the ideals associated with its identity, but name another major school that is as Catholic in its mission and culture.

  2. Interesting comparison between DePaul and Notre Dame. I would agree that Notre Dame has competed with the major secular research universities better than any other historically Catholic college in America. For Freddoso and others, though, the loss of Catholic identity was too high a price to pay. One of his more particular complaints is that Notre Dame lacks a core curriculum in which students can encounter both the classical and Christian traditions. You can go through Notre Dame without reading any Plato, Aristotle, or Aquinas. In recent years surveys have shown that N.D. grads know no more about the Catholic faith than students at secular universities. The object of a Catholic university should be a distinctively Catholic intellectual formation of the student. The nature of this formation will vary according to the subject matter, and non-Christian students will participate in it in a different manner than Christian ones. But I don't see how a school can view this formation as the "suffocating grip of dogma and doctrine" and still call itself Catholic. There may be Masses and statues and crucifixes on campus, but if the classroom is secular, the university cannot be considered Catholic. There are some Catholic colleges that are now self-consciously trying to revive an authentic Catholic college education, including The Franciscan University at Steubenville, the University of Dallas, Thomas Aquinas College, and Ave Maria University. Some Protestant colleges are interested in the same within their own traditions, including Houston Baptist University, where I teach. It is true that none of these schools is a major research university, but that begs the question of whether the model of the research university should be embraced by Christians as the ideal.