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Learning From Notre Dame: Catholic Identity is Not Optional

By Deacon Keith Fournier
April 14th, 2009
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Catholic identity requires that the College community understand its ecclesial nature and mission.

CHESAPEAKE, Va. (Catholic Online) - “By its very nature, each Catholic university makes an important contribution to the Church's work of evangelization. It is a living institutional witness to Christ and his message, so vitally important in cultures marked by secularism, or where Christ and his message are still virtually unknown.” (Apostolic Constitution on Catholic Universities)

Notre Dame’s decision to confer an honorary Doctor of Law Degree upon a President who fails to recognize the Right to Life has a silver lining. Catholics in America are saying “Not in our House”. Notre Dame is named after the Woman who’s “yes” to the Angel forever changed human history. The Incarnate Word became flesh and dwelt within Our Lady. Jesus was an embryonic person and developed as a child in the first home of the whole human race, the womb of His Holy Mother. That fundamental truth lies at the heart of the Christian claim. Every procured abortion is an intrinsically evil act because it is the taking of innocent human life. It can never be accepted as a “right” even if the errant positive law proclaims if to be so. The Natural Law written on every human heart confirms what science demonstrates, the child in the womb is one of us.

This U.S.President who calls us to care for our neighbor has a terrible blind side in his claims to compassion and solidarity. He fails to hear the cry of the poor in the womb. In the words of the Bishops of the United States: “The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.” In spite of the sophistry of Fr. Jenkins, Notre Dame has overtly disobeyed this clear instruction.

The challenge faced by all serving the Church as she is present in the Catholic College community can be understood within a broader challenge facing the whole Church, what the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council called the “separation between faith and life.” This separation was addressed in their document on the Mission of the Church in the Modern World: "This council exhorts Christians, as citizens of two cities, to strive to discharge their earthly duties conscientiously and in response to the Gospel spirit. They are mistaken who, knowing that we have here no abiding city but seek one which is to come think that they may therefore shirk their earthly responsibilities. For they are forgetting that by the faith itself they are more obliged than ever to measure up to these duties, each according to his proper vocation. Nor, on the contrary, are they any less wide of the mark who think that religion consists in acts of worship alone and in the discharge of certain moral obligations, and who imagine they can plunge themselves into earthly affairs in such a way as to imply that these are altogether divorced from the religious life. This split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age."

Western culture would not be in moral decline if Catholics lived their Christian faith in an integrated manner,in the words of Pope Benedict with "moral coherence". It was to respond to this challenge that the late Servant of God, John Paul II, called for a “New Evangelization.” That call has borne fruit throughout the entire Church, including in the new Catholic Colleges and the renewed and restored Catholic Colleges. They are a primary resource for the work that must be done. The Catholic College must become the front line. Before Antioch, where the followers of Jesus were first called Christians, they were often referred to as “The Way” (See, Acts 22). Their lifestyle was different from that of the prevailing culture. Their faith informed how they lived their daily lives. It also made their evangelizing and sanctifying mission extraordinarily fruitful. This new way of living is still meant to be normative among those who bear the name Christian. Its’ recovery is essential to the mission of the whole Church in the Third Millennium.

Catholic Identity

Within the Catholic College there has been an erosion of Catholic identity on many campuses. Catholic identity requires that the College community understand its ecclesial nature. In an institution, just as in persons, it begins from the inside and works its way throughout like leaven or yeast in a loaf. Catholic identity must become the beating heart of a Catholic College and provide the infrastructure for its entire educational mission. When it does, the building of a Catholic culture on campus becomes a fruit. This kind of Catholic culture helps to ensure the integration of the faith in every aspect of the academy through word and witness. It flourishes when all who are involved in this educational mission, from the Catholic College President to the Professor in the classroom, first view themselves as disciples, lifelong learners, followers of the Teacher, Jesus Christ.

This response is lived within His Body, the Church, into which they have been incorporated through Baptism. That Church is by its very nature, a teacher, and they participate in her educational mission. In speaking of herself, the Church often notes that she is an “expert in humanity” who “walks the way of the person”. The Church is, both “Mater et Magister” “Mother and Teacher.” Education is not something the Church adds something to, as though the process of educating were some kind of nakedly secular pursuit which the Church somehow makes “religious”. Rather, education is at the core of the Churches’ saving mission.

The Catholic College President

The articulation and sustenance of this vision and mission are the primary responsibility of the Catholic College President. Such a President must understand his/her task as pedagogical, pastoral, catechetical and developmental. All leadership within the Catholic College is a part of the Catholic ecclesial community and participates in the leadership of the Church. Catholic College Presidents need to understand the uniqueness of Catholic leadership, believe it, and live it. Catholic identity should be the first criterion considered in choosing Presidents and the measuring stick for their regular performance review. It should motivate their service, and inform everything that they do in discharging their office. The Catholic College President is at the service of the Catholic Church and then through her called to prepare leaders for the world. He or she should understand the implications of the faith on the entirety of the educational mission. They are not simply secular professionals offering their skills in a Catholic College. They participate in the saving mission of the Catholic Church. The students entrusted to their care are “living stones being built into a spiritual household” (I Peter 2:5) who have been called to build the future. Their call as Catholic College Presidents is to articulate a compelling vision and mission in word and deed and help the academic community placed in their care along the Catholic way.

I have seen how clear vision and leadership can transform a Catholic College. I will end by sharing a brief part of my personal experience. The full story can be found in several books. As a young man, after almost two years in a Benedictine monastery, I finished my College education in a little College in Ohio. I followed a priest friend there. He had been invited to save the school from impending disaster through becoming its President. It was already morally and spiritually bankrupt and would soon be financially so without a rescue plan. He prayed intensely about the invitation and offered to accept upon a condition. The Board had to give him freedom to rededicate the school as a Catholic school to Jesus Christ as the Way, the Truth and the Life with full adherence to the Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church. The Trustees agreed.

When I arrived on campus three of the four dormitories on campus were empty. The theology major had been cancelled for lack of interest and there was talk of discontinuing daily Mass due to lack of attendance. I moved into an empty dorm and led one of the first “faith households”, the nucleus of a new model of student life implemented as a part of the vision of this Catholic College President. Students were to live a common Christian life in the wing of a dorm which included attending Mass, studying the faith together, engaging in mission and supporting one another to live full Catholic lives within a College environment. That wonderful little College became the Franciscan University of Steubenville. Under the leadership of Fr. Michael Scanlan the College of Steubenville was built into a dynamically orthodox global Catholic University. Now it is only one of many jewels in the growing Crown that is the recovery of Catholic higher education. What happened at Steubenville is not an isolated story. It is happening in other Catholic Colleges. It requires a rediscovery of and full commitment to Catholic identity. We need to learn from Notre Dame: Catholic Identity is Not Optional

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