Jonathan Liedl lives in St. Paul, Minn., where he is a graduate fellow in the Catholic Studies program at the University of St. Thomas. He works as the communications coordinator for Catholic Rural Life, a non-profit devoted to revitalizing the Church in the countryside and applying Catholic teaching to rural issues. In addition to writing and editing for the Register, he is a contributing editor of the web-journal Ethika Politika. Liedl earned his bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Arabic Studies from the University of Notre Dame.
A recent reflection from a Notre Dame senior presented some tips on “how to leave college a Catholic.” With three-plus years of experience navigating the nuanced and confusing bundle of hope and consternation that is the nation’s flagship Catholic university, the author issues a pretty comprehensive list of “do’s” that includes making use of on-campus offerings of the sacraments and forming social relationships that reinforce the faith.
But Alexandra DeSanctis saves her most adamant advice for an integral—even primary—part of the college experience that we often neglect when talking about a university’s Catholic identity: its academics.
Forming young minds in the truths of the faith is, of course, at the very core of the Catholic university, and DeSanctis points out that a student’s four years on campus are an especially unique opportunity to go deep into the intellectual tradition of the Church. After all, she says, “you’ll be getting secular lessons from the media for the rest of your life.”
Of course, the ever-increasing problem facing Catholic higher ed is that it can be difficult for an incoming freshman and even current students to know which courses are “authentically Catholic” and which faculty members are loyal to the magisterium. This is especially frustrating at a place like Notre Dame, where some absolutely brilliant Catholic academics do their work within a larger faculty that has had its Catholic identity diluted and diminished.
Fortunately, some serious help in navigating through the “boom or bust” mix of classes and professors at Notre Dame has arrived. NDCatholic.com, an independent website devoted to assisting students “who are seeking an authentic education at Notre Dame,” launched today. The site provides students with recommendations and profiles of solid professors (some of whom aren’t necessarily Catholic), as well as additional resources, like a list of authentically Catholic student organizations and reading material to help visitors deepen their understanding of the mission of the Catholic university.
Fr. Bill Miscamble, CSC, a professor of history at Notre Dame, is the man at the helm of the project, which he says came about as a way to provide resources to the bevy of concerned parents and students who have contacted him through the years, seeking advice on which courses and professors to take. The amiable Australian and Holy Cross priest consulted students and other academics when putting together the list of “approved” faculty, but he bears final responsibility for its contents. Fr. Miscamble also notes that the list includes only a partial assessment of professors within the popular College of Arts and Letters, but will be expanded to include the faculty of Notre Dame’s other colleges (like Business and Engineering) soon.
Even as an incomplete project, the website is a welcome addition. For years at Notre Dame, there have been concerted efforts to share “insider’s info” on which profs to take (and which ones to stay away from), most notably The Irish Rovers bi-annual “DART Like a Champion Today.” But it’s safe to say that there’s never been anything with both the precision and the scope of NDCatholic.com.
Now, I imagine that some of the students to whom the website caters, those “seeking an authentic education” rooted in the Catholic understanding of faith and reason, already have places that they can turn to when setting their schedule for next semester, such as their like-minded friends, an older sibling who already graduated, or even a trusted professor who knows where her fellow faculty members stand on matters of faith and morality better than just about anyone else. These students are probably also the same ones who go to nightly Mass in their dorm’s chapel and read The Irish Rover in the dining hall.
The ND Catholic website, however, provides an invaluable service to those who are seeking a solid Catholic education, but aren’t already plugged into Notre Dame’s impressive but non-institutionalized network of orthodoxy.
Think of the incoming freshman who wants the best Catholic education possible but has no previous ties to Our Lady’s University; or the junior who is starting to take his faith seriously but doesn’t have the social network in place to receive guidance on course selection. Because Notre Dame lacks something like a Department of Catholic Studies, which is both a symbol and a reality of an integrated approach to Catholic higher education, an accessible and informative resource like NDCatholic.com is all the more crucial.
Of course, the website isn’t a panacea for the problems that plague Notre Dame in particular, and Catholic higher ed in general. One of these great challenges is less about connecting faithful Catholic students to faithful Catholic professors, and more about the fact that so many Catholic students don’t seem to care about getting a solid education rooted in the faith. I certainly didn’t when I arrived at Notre Dame nearly 10 years ago, and I’m not sure the ND Catholic website would’ve helped me much as I bumbled through my first couple years on campus; it wouldn’t have even been on my radar.
And that’s fine. Because the battle to restore a right understanding of higher education in our Catholic universities won’t be won in one fell swoop. Instead, it needs to be carried out with a balance of both stalwart defense and opportunistic offense, with a parry here and an advance there. That means not only going after the lost sheep, but making sure the sheep that are already in the pen stay there. NDCatholic.com is a fantastic resource for those Notre Dame students who hope to not merely “leave college a Catholic,” but leave with a mind formed by some of the best Catholic professors anywhere in the land.