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The Vagina Monologues controversy was an unmistakable signal that something fundamental had changed within the University.

In a series of open letters several distinguished faculty members have cited the faculty’s determined support of the play, together with Father Jenkins’ consequent change of mind, as evidence of a substantial weakening of Catholic identity. It is not only the radical clash of the play with Catholic teaching and culture that is implicated, but also the absence of any evident engagement by the University with the Church’s central document on academic freedom in a Catholic institution, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, or with the forceful objections of Bishop John M. D’Arcy. As Dr. John C. Cavadini, the Chair of the Theology Department, put it, “It is as though the mere mention of a relationship with the Church has become so alien to our way of thinking and so offensive to our quest for a disembodied ‘excellence’ that it has become impolite to mention it at all.”

We describe elsewhere how this disjuncture between University and Church was conspicuously underscored last year when fifty bishops moved their conference off the campus after they learned hat the play might be performed later in the year. The breach has now been greatly widened by the Obama episode, with 83 Cardinals, Archbishops and Bishops seconding Bishop John M. D’Arcy’s condemnation of Notre Dame’s action in honoring, to the applause of most of the faculty, the Church’s principle adversary on abortion and embryonic stem cell research issues.

Of course Notre Dame remains Catholic in many important respects. A visit to campus, where one cannot fail to sense the presence of a vibrant spiritual life, is reassuring. The signs appear everywhere, from the first glimpse of Our Lady watching over all, to the luminosity of Sacred Heart Basilica, to the crowded Masses, to the serenity of the Grotto. And there is student faith in action in many forms that the visitor cannot see, perhaps most notably the dedication of a great many students to the service of those in need. So, too, are elements of the faculty involved in a host of activities proper to an important center of Catholic learning, many of which are catalogued in the annual reports of the Dean of the College of Arts and Letters.

Such signs of religious vitality, however, can be, and often are, seriously misleading, as James Tunsted Burtchaell, C.S.C., points out in his landmark study of the secularization of church-established colleges and universities, The Dying of the Light. Father Burtchaell, a former Notre Dame Provost, found that “[a]lmost without exception a rhetoric of concern began...just as the critical turn had already been made.” Id. at 833. The faculty, he reported, was “the first constituency to lose interest in their colleges being Lutheran or Catholic or Congregational,” and the faculty may already have been transformed “while the student body continued to be recruited from the traditional clientele.” Id. at 828-29, 837-38. With such a student body, outward appearances may quite naturally remain unaffected. Thus, “ ... [U]usually... the change of a college or university’s character went largely unnoticed because of the stability of cultural symbols, which altered more slowly.” Id. at 837.

As Notre Dame alumnus Dr. James R. Stoner has observed with respect to the secularization of faculty and programs in Protestant institutions, the “full meaning” of these changes “was hidden for a long time – not least from the universities’ alumni – by the continued extracurricular religious life of the students...But the shell cannot survive forever without the living organism....” 

This scenario has played out time and again, first in Protestant and later, beginning in the 1960’s, in Catholic institutions. A decisive moment for Catholic schools came in 1967 with the adoption by 26 top Catholic educators of the Land O’Lakes Statement, which issued from a meeting called by Notre Dame President Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C. This statement, Father Burtchaell reports, set forth what became “the classic doctrine on how modern Catholic universities were to be defined primarily by their membership in the modern educational establishment.” Id. at 595. While debate about the full range of consequences of the statement has been intense, one set of results is undisputed, namely, the severing of formal ties with the institutional Church and the ending of control by founding religious orders. And in the wake of the passing of governance from religious to secular hands came the dilution of the sponsoring religion’s representation on the faculty.

This leads to the pivotal question: What, precisely, has happened at Notre Dame?

The answer is alarming. As the graph on our home page shows, there has been a precipitous reduction in the proportion of Catholic faculty members over the last several decades. Specifically, Catholic representation has dropped from around 85% in the 1970’s to the current level of  53%. Moreover, this number is inflated by the inclusion of an indeterminate, but surely significant, number of merely nominal as well as dissenting Catholics.

Thus, on the continuum from an essentially Catholic faculty toward an essentially secular one, Notre Dame is already far along. So far, indeed, that Catholic representation falls well short of the standard established by the University as the minimum necessary to its Catholic identity. That standard is embodied in the school’s Mission Statement, which declares, “[T]he Catholic identity of the University depends upon... the presence of a predominant number of Catholic intellectuals” on the faculty. The author, then-President Edward Malloy, C.S.C., explained that this “take[s] seriously that numbers make a difference” and that a “predominant number” means “not simply being satisfied with 50%.”  Moreover, both Father Jenkins and Provost Burish have affirmed that the requirement refers to a majority of committed, not nominal or dissenting, Catholics. As the Provost put it, the requirement is “to have a majority of faculty who are Catholic, who understand the nature of the religion [and] who can be living role models.”

This point is important. A number of non-Catholic faculty members who are committed to their own faith traditions do serve as “living role models” and do “understand the nature of religion.” They contribute more to the religious mission of the school than do dissenting and nominal Catholics. As Naomi Schaffer Riley commented in her study of Notre Dame (pp. 55-56): “[T]he most important division within the faculty is not between Catholics and non-Catholics, but rather between those who take the school’s religious identity seriously and those who do not.” God on the Quad (Iver R. Dee 2006, pp. 55-56).  To act on the obvious truth that, if Notre Dame is to be a Catholic university, its faculty must be predominantly Catholic is not in any respect to denigrate the important contributions of non-Catholics.

But if the situation now is unsatisfactory, the future looks much worse. Unless Catholics are consistently hired at an unprecedented rate, the existing slim arithmetical Catholic majority will become a shrinking minority before long. In two important essays, the distinguished Notre Dame historian Wilson D. Miscamble, C.S.C., described the hiring practices that have produced the current crisis and why only a decisive about-face will prevent a continuing and fatal decline of Catholic representation. The demographics – the heavy proportion of Catholics retiring – are daunting. Our projections, based on information given to us by the University and other sources, confirm Father Miscamble’s estimates. They show that Catholics must be hired at a rate in the 60-65% range simply to maintain the present slim and deficient arithmetical majority.

We offered to discuss these projections with University representatives, but received no response. The reason is suggested by an article in The Irish Rover entitled “Faculty Set to Drop Below 50% For First Time – Administration Emphasizes Complexity, Alumni Voice Concern.” The article featured our projections and the reactions of two high-ranking University officials, Associate Vice President James McDonald, C.S.C., and Dr. Mark Roche, then Dean of the College of Arts and Letters. The Rover reported: “Neither denied the general plausibility of these projections, although exact predictions remain impossible.”

In these circumstances, what is especially discouraging is the action of the Administration in setting a hiring goal far below what is necessary to meet the Mission Statement requirement. This goal, as described by Father Robert Sulivan, Vice President for the Office of Academic Mission Support, will be met if a shade over 50%of those hired each year are Catholic. In writing Father Jenkins about this new goal, we described the consequences:

Because of the heavy concentration of Catholics among retirees, it is obvious that in the short term a hiring rate just above 50% will not stem the decline in Catholic faculty. And our long-term projections show that, even in the unlikely event that the goal is consistently met, Catholics would soon become a dwindling minority and would not regain majority status within the 67-year time frame of our calculations. That is, for all practical purposes Catholics would never again be a majority.

We did not receive a reply.

Since Father Jenkins, the Provost, and former Dean Roche have all publicly acknowledged the critical need for a reversal of course in hiring, the adoption of this transparently inadequate goal is baffling. The Provost has said, “When the prospective rate of Catholic retirements is plotted against the contemporary rate of Catholic hires as a constant, it is clear that soon Notre Dame will no longer have the predominant number of Catholic faculty members whom we require.” Dean Roche has warned that past hiring patterns have “threaten[ed] Notre Dame’s capacity to realize its mission.” (Dean Roche’s Report).

As in the case of The Vagina Monologues where faculty protest prevailed, it seems reasonable to infer that the reason for setting the goal too low was faculty resistance to anything more demanding. But if the purpose in setting the goal this low was to accommodate the faculty, it evidently did not succeed. Even this was too much for the Faculty Senate, whose statement of April 9, 2008, discloses the full measure of faculty resistance. The statement is animated principally by a driving ambition for recognition of Notre Dame as a top-tier research university.

Purporting to “speak for the entire faculty” on the basis of a canvass, the Senate advanced the following jarring recommendation: “The University should not compromise its academic aspirations in its efforts to maintain its Catholic identity.” Although the Mission Statement declares that the University’s Catholic identity “depends upon” the presence of a “predominant number” of Catholic faculty, the Senate asserts that the “number of Catholic faculty” is “not the primary determinant” and that all that is needed is a “significant presence” of Catholics. Accordingly, the Senate asserts, the Administration “should not impose numerical targets.”

This single-minded focus on secular criteria in hiring comes as no surprise. In a 2003 survey by Baylor scholars of faculty members at four universities with religious ties, 57% of Notre Dame faculty members affirmed that the University should hire faculty on the basis of “academic promise or prominence regardless of religious beliefs or commitments."

To his credit, Father Jenkins has candidly acknowledged the gravity of the problem and has commissioned Father Sullivan to assist the faculty in recruiting Catholics. The Provost appointed an ad hoc committee to propose means of recruiting Catholic scholars, and he has accepted many of  the committee’s recommendations. Moreover, the hiring rate in 2006-07 produced an increase in Catholic representation that compensated for the drop the prior year.

But long-term prospects for re-establishing the required Catholic predominance on the faculty are dim. It is not simply that  there have been other temporary upturns in the past and that maintaining the status quo is not nearly enough. More importantly, the action of the Administration in setting a hiring goal that can be met at a 50.1% annual rate, coupled with its failure to accord priority to hiring to enhance Catholic representation, is a prescription for failure. Father Jenkins has given equal weight to four hiring aims: academic ranking, diversity, women’s representation, and Catholic representation. Most of the faculty likes three of these and not the fourth. More, in his official statement of goals Father Jenkins lists achieving recognition as a “pre-eminent research university” ahead of Catholic identity. This reflects his heavy emphasis in addressing the faculty on propelling Notre Dame into the top tier of research universities.

The matter is uncomplicated. It is a question of priorities.  Willl those in governance accept the continuing weakening of the University’s Catholic identity as the price for securing still more attention from secular academe, or will they instead take whatever measures are necessary to meet the Mission Statement faculty requirement notwithstanding faculty resistance? The signs are not heartening.

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“Notre Dame has certainly not lost the public image of an intensely Catholic university, though a number of critics believe that its headlong pursuit of reputation indicates a ‘willingness to weaken or even to betray the ideals of a Catholic college in the hope of being accepted by those who do not share those ideals.’”

Robert Benne
“Quality with Soul”

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