“Notre Dame is a place that is not clear about its mission and identity. There is a debate here as to whether it will be a Catholic university at its heart or just in a peripheral way.”

So says Notre Dame history professor Father Wilson Miscamble. While Notre Dame has made headlines in recent years over controversies involving The Vagina Monologues, honoring Barack Obama, and, most recently, a trustee who was generous in her support to abortion-advocacy organizations, daily Mass continues in single-sex dorms on campus as many faithful professors lie low but provide solid anchors to the school’s mission in the midst of the cloud of confusion created by errant administrative choices.

At the heart of that battle for the soul of Our Lady’s university is The Fund to Protect Human Life, which this summer inaugurated its first Vita Institute, an intensive training program under the mantle of its Project Guadalupe, for pro-life leaders in various walks of life (including those in medicine, education, politics and family).

But the future of the institute as a campus beacon is in question, as worries increase that the administration will penalize its leader, philosophy professor David Solomon, for the alternative leadership he and others who support the fund provide on campus.

The fund, which was established in September 2008, relies on the Center for Ethics and Culture, which Solomon also directs, for administrative support. Solomon has been given indications that his tenure at the center, though, is through this academic year, leaving the center’s direction — and therefore the fund’s administrative home — in question.

Many, especially those who believe in the work of the fund, wish that Father Miscamble, who serves on the independent board of the fund, were president of the university. He could be. He’s a Holy Cross priest who first arrived at Notre Dame as a graduate student in 1976. He has been a member of the permanent faculty since 1988, has been department chairman and rector of the seminary adjacent to campus.

Father Miscamble spoke about the state of Notre Dame and what can be done to save the direction of the center and the fund, whose work provides nourishment in the renewal of not only the South Bend, Ind., campus, but a demonstration of leadership in the New Evangelization, helping to protect and defend and reconstitute Notre Dame as a golden-domed treasure of the Church.

There have been some terrific developments since President Obama was on campus two years ago. There is the impressive Fund to Protect Human Life, and you lead a chapter of University Faculty for Life. Notre Dame’s participation in the March for Life has increased. And from the administration, too: There is now an Office of Life Initiatives and an alumni office for the same, among other things. Are these just for show, or real steps in the right direction?

You are right to say that there have been some important developments on campus following the Obama visit. The ND administration’s measures have been steps in the right direction. A firm commitment has been made not to engage in embryonic stem-cell research. ...

Yet, while I commend these measures, it is clear that the major pro-life initiatives on campus still rest with groups that don’t have serious administration support, such as the Center for Ethics and Culture and the Notre Dame Fund to Protect Human Life, both of which are led by professor David Solomon. We will know the administration is really serious about supporting the pro-life effort at Notre Dame when they offer such initiatives full support. This is not the case at the moment. Quite the opposite. In fact, there is an effort afoot to force David Solomon from his directorship of the Center for Ethics and Culture just as he is getting Project Guadalupe firmly established.

What’s wrong with Notre Dame?

Let me approach this question by saying that Notre Dame is a place that is not clear about its mission and identity. There is a debate here as to whether it will be a Catholic university at its heart or just in a peripheral way. That Notre Dame is not sure what foundational document will guide its present and future is the source of many of our problems. For example, [board chairman] Mr. [Richard] Notebaert seems to think that the Land O’Lakes Statement, with its strictures for complete institutional autonomy from the Church, should serve this role. This is a disastrous course and one that pushes us further down the road to the marginalization of religion and ultimately to secularization. This is the course that asks us to ape and mirror the secular schools that lie ahead of us in the U.S. News and World Report rankings.

The alternate course is the one offered by John Paul II’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae and which is already incorporated into Notre Dame’s mission statement. Thus, our mission statement reads: “A Catholic university draws its basic inspiration from Jesus Christ as the source of wisdom and from the conviction that in him all things can be brought to their completion. As a Catholic university, Notre Dame wishes to contribute to this educational mission.”

The debate between these two versions is occurring right now. How this contest gets worked out in practice will determine the future of Notre Dame. Will we merely settle for a Catholic “gloss” on or around Notre Dame? This is what my colleague from the philosophy department, Fred Freddoso, referred to when he suggested Notre Dame might be “a public school in a Catholic neighborhood.” This would mean that the central academic project would not be guided by Catholic principles or by the call of Christ. That this sad prospect is even a possibility indicates the parlous circumstance in which Notre Dame finds itself. Regrettably, much of this is due to the deterioration in the Catholic composition of the faculty over the past decades.

Let me simply suggest that the fraying of its Catholic identity and the inability of the university to meet its declared objective of having a predominant number of committed Catholics on its faculty are the sources of many of our major problems.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor at-large of National Review Online. A longer version of this interview appears here.