Father Bill Miscamble has been a Holy Cross priest for 25 years and a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame since 1988. During that time, he has served as chair of the history department and rector of Moreau Seminary.
Most notably, however, he has been one of the chief defenders and promoters of Notre Dame’s commitment to its Catholic identity.
His most recent book, For Notre Dame: Battling for the Heart and Soul of a Catholic University, recounts many of these efforts — both on campus and beyond — to preserve Notre Dame’s commitment to the Catholic faith.
He spoke with the Register about his new book, the current state of affairs at Notre Dame and his hope for continued renewal in Catholic higher education.
Ex Corde Ecclesia is the 1990 encyclical by John Paul II outlining his vision for Catholic universities, which you draw on throughout your book. By your assessment, in what ways has Notre Dame failed and succeeded in living out this vision?
Ex Corde Ecclesiae must be the essential blueprint which guides Notre Dame and all truly Catholic institutions of higher education. Unfortunately, the past decades have seen developments on campus which have taken Notre Dame well down a more secularist path and lessened its capacity to serve from "the heart of the Church."
While the university still has a vibrant liturgical life on campus and solid pastoral ministry, the academic center of the university has not lived up to the Ex Corde vision put forth by Blessed John Paul II. This is especially evident when one examines such crucial areas as the complexion of the faculty and the content of the curriculum.
Were you surprised with the university’s decision to sue the federal government over the HHS mandate, which would require Notre Dame to pay for contraception and other abortifacients?
I was not surprised by the eventual decision, in that I was aware of discussions regarding legal action that had been in the works for some time. Undoubtedly, the action was taken out of genuine concern for religious freedom. The university leadership could have been more forceful in its opposition. No doubt, there was some embarrassment over the need to sue, given that President Obama promised to "draft a sensible conscience clause" in his commencement address at Notre Dame [in 2009]. Yet there was a clear recognition that the HHS mandate’s requiring Notre Dame to provide health insurance covering abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives and sterilizations effectively forced the university to fund activities contrary to Catholic teaching. This has to be opposed. I hope that Notre Dame might play a much more vigorous role in the defense of religious liberty in the United States going forward.
As a priest first and foremost, I know that the spiritual life at Notre Dame is your highest concern. How would you describe the current spiritual health of the community?
We can be very grateful that there is still solid pastoral ministry and strong liturgical practice on campus, but there is much more that Notre Dame can do to aid its students to encounter Christ and to serve as a vehicle to bring the Gospel to the world.
Notre Dame must be an institution where what Pope Benedict called "the dictatorship of relativism" does not prevail. It must contest the secular forces so prevalent in the broad culture and energetically contribute to the crucial work of the New Evangelization. Notre Dame’s spiritual health, in a corporate sense, will be more robust when it rejects many of the prevailing and often shallow fads that beset American universities.
In my book, I suggest that a new generation of dedicated Holy Cross religious at Notre Dame might play a special role in spiritual renewal on campus, so that it will be a place which offers an integrated education concerned not only with the mind, but also with the heart and soul.
You mention the new generation of Holy Cross priests as giving you hope for Notre Dame’s future. Can you expand on that?
A decade ago, I had the privilege of serving as rector of Moreau Seminary at Notre Dame, the principal formation site of the Congregation of Holy Cross in North America, and I continue to live there. Consequently, I have a close familiarity with our recently ordained priests and with our men presently in the various stages of priestly formation — now numbering close to 50. They are zealous and committed men who want to place their gifts and talents in the Lord’s service and to call and aid others to deepen their relationship with Christ.
Fortunately, a good number of them are preparing to serve in the crucial higher education apostolate. They promise to be true educators in the faith and agents of the New Evangelization, who will bring Christ to the classroom and, indeed, to all parts of the campus. They are a source of great encouragement for me in my own endeavors.
You’re very involved in Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture, which has really been a beacon of light since its founding by David Solomon. Can you describe some of the ways in which the center has buttressed both the intellectual and spiritual life on campus?
The Center for Ethics and Culture (CEC) is a special jewel at Notre Dame and a most notable contributor to the university’s Catholic mission. David Solomon’s key insight was to root the work of the center in the Gospels and in important elements of recent Church teaching, especially the encyclicals of Blessed John Paul II, such as Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth) and Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life). The center emerged quickly as the bastion for pro-life activities on campus, and it has supported a whole variety of student and faculty initiatives in this key area.
Under David, and now under the guidance of his excellent successor, Carter Snead, the center also serves as an interdisciplinary hub for reflection, research and dialogue on the Catholic moral and intellectual tradition and its application to contemporary issues. Furthermore, the CEC provides valuable programming for students, such as its excellent Catholic literature series, and it hosts a variety of lectures and conferences that reach out to audiences from Notre Dame and far beyond. The CEC’s annual fall conference is an especially impressive gathering for dialogue and debate.
Let me encourage your readers to get details from the center’s website (EthicsCenter.nd.edu) of the upcoming conference, which will be held in November and will address the theme of the body and human identity.
How do you see students living their faith on campus?
The faith of the undergraduate students is one of the real strengths of Notre Dame. It is publicly evident in their participation at Masses in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart and in the various residence halls, in their involvement in the various programs offered by [the Office of] Campus Ministry, including retreats and Bible study, etc. It is also very evident in the large numbers of students committed to some regular volunteer service through the programs of the Center for Social Concerns and, of course, through the terrific endeavors of the Notre Dame Right to Life organization, which had 500-plus students attend the most recent March for Life in Washington, D.C. Moreover, an increasing number of students of faith support each other in resisting the excessive drinking which unfortunately "fuels" some of what passes for social life on college campuses today and can devolve into the exploitative "hook-up" culture. Finally, a growing number of students are demonstrating a deep hunger for the truth. They want more than the limited vocational/career training that most colleges now provide. They want to face deep questions of meaning and to discern the path God calls them to travel. Notre Dame must be a place that allows them to do this well.
writes from New York.