For Tradition-minded Catholics, Notre Dame Is Making a Comeback

At Notre Dame this year, Catholics can cheer more about what's happening on the campus rather than on the gridiron.

While the football team finished 7-6 and was soundly defeated by Louisiana State University in the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La., Dec. 28, scores of faculty members and students are spearheading a spiritual renewal that's taking hold at the northwest Indiana school.

In a move that bodes well for the school's Catholic identity, Notre Dame's administration appointed Professor John Cavadini as chairman of the theology department in August 1997, rejecting the first choice of some powerful faculty members, according to a source on campus.

Who is John Cavadini? Well, he's no Father Richard McBrien.

Unlike Father McBrien, the outspoken ecclesiology professor who headed the department during the 1980s—or Professor Lawrence Cunningham, who succeeded him—Cavadini maintains a low profile, preferring the life of a scholar and teacher and shunning the media spotlight, according to a Notre Dame source who requested anonymity.

While Father McBrien welcomed media attention and often used his high profile to highlight differences with Pope John Paul II's teaching, Cavadini tried to downplay the importance of his becoming department chairman when a reporter called to interview him.

With a family of seven children, departmental responsibilities, and Patristics classes to teach, Cavadini probably wouldn't have time to pontificate for the media, even if he wanted to do it.

Cavadini is a popular lecturer. “You can drink his theology,” said Mary Kloska, a junior from Elkhart, Ind., who has enrolled in Cavadini's “Roads to God” class this semester. “It's so refreshing to have someone who is orthodox and true to the teachings of the Church.”

“He's very open-minded in the ways he looks at different spiritualities,” said Kloska, a theology major who is reading the Lives of the Saints in Cavadini's class. “So often, we get watered-down theology. Kids today want the truth. Things are black or white. They're either right or wrong.”

Like the student body as a whole, Kloska seems more tradition-minded than many Notre Dame faculty. But the ascendancy of professors such as Cavadini has helped to bridge the gap.

The difference between catechizing and theological inquiry is important to many Notre Dame theologians, according to Alfred Freddoso, a philosophy professor at Notre Dame.

“They see a sharp distinction between the two,” he said. But added that engaging in biblical criticism is probably inappropriate for many “poorly catechized” college students today.

Many other Catholic universities struggle with issues related to teaching introductory theology classes in such an environment, said Freddoso.

“Cavadini appears to be instigating a rethinking of [how to teach] introduction to theology,” in the department, he said.

The school's administration has gone against theology department faculty before in recent months. In December 1996, the faculty senate—chaired by Father McBrien—denounced university president Father Edward Malloy CSC, for appointing against their wishes Father Michael Baxter, a fellow Holy Cross priest, as a visiting theology professor.

Father Baxter holds a master of divinity degree from Notre Dame and a doctorate from Duke University, where he studied under ethicist Stanley Hauerwas.

Theology department faculty rejected Father Malloy's appointment of Father Baxter for either an assistant professorship in theology, which normally is a tenure track position, and Father Malloy's compromise: that Father Baxter serve a three-year term as visiting assistant professor, according to an article posted on Freddoso's Website.

Father Baxter's “A Faith to Die For” theology class is one that students clamor to get into, according to Freddoso. Father Baxter, a young cleric, has taken a particular interest in the relationship between Catholicism and the American consumerist culture and appears to relate well to students.

Freddoso, who called Father Baxter a “Catholic worker type,” said he could always recommend the priest's class or Cavadini's “Roads to God” class for undergraduate students.

“Whenever the chairman of your theology department has seven kids, you know you're in good shape,” said Freddoso.

If Malloy went to bat for Baxter in part because he's a Holy Cross priest, he may have appointed Cavadini not only to strengthen Notre Dame's Catholic identity but also to improve relations with the local Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, diocese as well as to give a boost to Notre Dame's most recent capital campaign, which began last May.

Father Daniel Jenky CSC, formerly rector of Sacred Heart Basilica on Notre Dame's campus, recently became an auxiliary bishop in the diocese, whose ordinary is Bishop John D'Arcy.

The recent moves of Notre Dame's administration stand in sharp contrast to the late 1980s when Janet Smith was denied tenure by the university's Program of Liberal Studies, although she was popular with students. A philosophy professor who supports Humanae Vitae (On Human Life) and author of a book about Pope Paul VI's controversial 1968 encyclical, Smith went on to receive tenure at the University of Dallas.

A more orthodox spirit seems to have imbued Notre Dame since those days. About 150 people from the university went to the March for Life last month, a five-fold increase in the number who made the trip to Washington during the previous two years, according to Kloska.

Students such as Kloska prevailed upon Notre Dame campus ministry to begin 24-hour eucharistic adoration once every week. “We've had 200 people sign up,” to spend time in the church during adoration, she said. “We've invited 400 people and told them, ‘Jesus is in the Eucharist. He's there for you,’” she told the Register.

Four theology professors have signed up to take shifts during eucharistic adoration, Kloska said. Attendance at a Mass sponsored by Children of Mary, a group to which Kloska belongs, has shot up from five to 50 people, she said.

Ralph McInerny, the Notre Dame philosophy professor who edits Catholic Dossier, has become part of the effort, according to Kloska. Although McInerny has not taught undergraduates for some time and is currently on sabbatical from teaching duties, a number of undergraduate students went to him for directed readings. “It's evolved into a class on papal encyclicals with over 20 students,” she said.

Kloska and other students are working with Notre Dame's campus ministry to design retreats that stress traditional Catholic ascetical practices, such as praying the rosary and confession.

“I've never seen such faith as in these kids,” a campus ministry administrator told Kloska and her friends. “I want to go on your next retreat,” to receive the same enthusiasm for Catholic beliefs and practices.

None of this surprises Freddoso. “Students are looking for unity of life, with the intellectual, moral and spiritual sides all integrated together.

At Notre Dame, on the top of the administration building's “Golden Dome”—one of the most popular symbols on a college campus in the country—is a statue of the Virgin Mary.

“She's going to round up her kids,” said Kloska, who added “a lot of people have been praying for a long time for Notre Dame.”

William Murray writes from Kensington, Md.