Catholic Identity and the Core Curriculum at Notre Dame

The university is currently engaged in a review of its curriculum, at a time when Catholic identity remains a hot-button issue at U.S. Catholic colleges.

The mosaic of Christ the Teacher at the University of Notre Dame's Hesburgh Library.
The mosaic of Christ the Teacher at the University of Notre Dame's Hesburgh Library. (photo: Wikipedia)

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — A review of the University of Notre Dame’s core curriculum that will examine and likely make recommendations regarding the historic institution’s Catholic identity is being played close to the vest among officials charged with the study.

Typically, a review of Notre Dame’s core curriculum is conducted every decade, and this one takes place at a time when the issue of Catholic identity at “Our Lady’s University” and other Catholic institutions of higher learning remains a hot-button one for many U.S. Catholics.

The core-curriculum review committee includes 14 members of Notre Dame’s faculty and staff and is chaired by Gregory Crawford, dean of the College of Science, and John McGreevy, dean of the College of Arts and Letters. Both declined to speak to the Register.

Among the three focus groups formed to advise the committee is one entitled the Catholic Mission Focus Group, whose chairman is Mark Roche, professor of German language, literature and philosophy. Roche is also a member of the larger core-curriculum review committee.

Roche said in an email that “it would be inappropriate for me as a committee member to speak with the media when we are still in the midst of our campus discussions.”

“The curriculum review is in the early stages of an at least two-year process, and a variety of proposals are being discussed,” Dennis Brown, the university’s spokesman and vice president for news and media relations, said in an email message that declined to discuss the review.

“We won't offer observations on the process until it is complete and recommendations, if any, are adopted,” Brown added.


The Most Important Component’

The current requirement that all undergraduates take two theology courses signals the university’s commitment to its Catholic identity. But some at Notre Dame are concerned that this requirement could be changed.

“The core curriculum, with the theology requirement, is probably the most important component of Catholic identity,” said John Cavadini, director of the Institute for Church Life at Notre Dame, former head of the theology department and a member of the Catholic identity focus group.

“I think that there is a real possibility that we could lose the requirement of two theology courses. There is a lot hanging in the balance with this review. And there seems to be an aggressive push behind radical change, which they are now starting to call ‘bold change.’”

“Theology is the only discipline with a formal tie to the Church,” Cavadini continued. “If you sever that tie between the core curriculum and the theology requirement, you sever the last formal or structural tie between the Church and the curriculum as a whole.”

Msgr. Michael Heintz, who teaches courses on the history of Christianity in Notre Dame’s theology department and is director of the department’s master of divinity program, echoed Cavadini’s concerns. Msgr. Heintz said that some are worried that the basic theology requirement will be altered so that it could be met by courses loosely defined as “Catholic studies.”

Another faculty member speculated that a course on Milton’s Paradise Lost or Shakespeare plays that have theological content could be offered under the Catholic-studies umbrella and thus approved as an acceptable alternative to a traditional theology course.

Msgr. Heintz said that such courses could be “very appealing” as a way to meet theology-curriculum requirements but “could be construed so broadly that they would not have much theological content.”

Faculty members have been invited to contribute their ideas to the core-curriculum review committee.


Father Miscamble’s Concerns

Holy Cross Father Wilson Miscamble, who teaches in Notre Dame’s history department, wrote a letter calling for the university to both maintain and even strengthen its emphasis on Catholic identity through the curriculum.

In his hard-hitting Nov. 11 letter, Father Miscamble claimed that Notre Dame has “given up on providing some kind of integrated curriculum appropriate for the leading Catholic university we regularly proclaim ourselves to be.”

He urged the committee to use the review to address what he viewed as problematic areas of the curriculum.

Father Miscamble quoted Pope Benedict XVI’s 2008 address to U.S. Catholic educators in Washington, in which he said that “every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God, who, in Jesus Christ, reveals his transforming love and truth. This relationship elicits a desire to grow in the knowledge and understanding of Christ and his teaching.”

“We all know well that, in many ways, intellect has been detached from morality in the contemporary and utilitarian university,” Father Miscamble wrote to review-committee chairmen McGreevy and Crawford. “Notre Dame must truly dare to be different in contesting this separation.”

Father Miscamble expressed “strong support” for the theology and philosophy requirements of the current core curriculum but said that the course offerings should be improved. He emphasized that while the university has excellent theology instructors, “too often, our first-year students don’t see them when they take foundations courses because they are taught by doctoral students.”

Father Miscamble also proposed an interdisciplinary requirement “that could serve to familiarize students with what might be broadly termed the Catholic intellectual tradition.”

Back in 2007, Father Miscamble wrote an article, “The Faculty Problem,” which spotlighted Notre Dame’s mixed record on hiring new faculty who would help strengthen and advance its Catholic identity.

The article chided Notre Dame for stopping short of offering a faculty position to the famous Catholic historian Eamon Duffy, author of The Stripping of the Altars, while at the same time extending one to an atheist Chaucer scholar. Now, seven years later, Father Miscamble expressed the hope that the curriculum review would address Notre Dame’s faculty-hiring policies.

“Let me simply say that the faculty issue is crucial,” he said in an email to the Register. “Notre Dame must build upon the presence of the committed faculty presently there to recruit more devoted teachers and scholars who want to offer a distinctive Catholic education for its students.

“Only if this task is successfully accomplished will Notre Dame rest secure in its Catholic identity. This must be appreciated by all, but especially by those who undertake the curriculum review. We must have the faculty willing to teach the courses that a Catholic university must provide its students.”


More Support for Strong Catholic Identity

Another faculty member, who serves on the larger core-curriculum review committee and asked not to be named, agreed that preserving the university’s Catholic identity is essential to what makes Notre Dame a great institution.

“Of course, the Catholic world is concerned, and that is right and proper,” the faculty member said, stressing that “Catholic identity is so important at Notre Dame that it needed a focus group devoted to it.”

The faculty member is not Catholic, but he said he especially values the Catholic Church’s teachings about social justice and described Notre Dame as “a great research university that is also faith-based.”

If Notre Dame did not maintain its Catholic identity, he concluded, “it would not be a great university.”

Sister Ann Astell, a Notre Dame theology professor, said she would love to see the theology requirement for undergraduates strengthened.

“I certainly hope the theology requirement will stay as it is or even be increased,” she added. “That is my hope, but I don’t know if it is my expectation.”

In her own letter to the core-curriculum review committee, Sister Ann made a strong pitch for the theology requirement.

“For the Catholic educational process, according to Edith Stein, the goal of ‘realizing the natural potential of the individual person’ is inseparable from the ‘supernatural goal of human perfection in Christ,’” she wrote. “For that reason, philosophical and theological study is simply the indispensable, defining mark of Catholic education.

“Indeed, Christ himself is the Teacher, as the great mosaic on the wall of Hesburgh Library announces.”

Register correspondent Charlotte Hays writes from Washington.