Is the University of Notre Dame losing its Catholic identity?


Proposed University of Notre Dame curriculum review raises dust about the institution losing its core identity.

University of Notre Dame, America’s foremost Catholic tertiary institution is apparently at cross-roads at the moment as it conducts its 10-year review of curriculum standards. The question: “if to retain or repeal the traditional requirement of undergrads to take theology and philosophy courses as a requirement for graduation,” is beginning to spark-off an intense debate.

The debate is being instigated by a proposal to do away with the University’s age-long course requirement code, which is being put forward by some faculty, who have been described as “well-intentioned but badly misdirected individuals,” by Gary Anderson, a Professor of Theology who is opposed to the proposal. The main point being put forward against the proposal by the University’s stakeholders and faculty members who are opposed to a change of any sorts is that any such change could endanger the institution’s Catholic identity.

It is also widely believed that Notre Dame’s call on this issue could bring about a ripple effect across Catholic schools all over the U.S, as the school is viewed within Catholic circles as the central intellectual institution for American Catholicism. More so, it is perceived as one of the nation’s elite universities. “The question for every Catholic institution is how do we retain the highest intellectual standards so we’re respected, but not in a way that compromises our very identity,” said Professor Anderson. “Our fear is that those distinctive modes of learning are in danger of being diluted by well-intentioned but badly misdirected individuals within the university,” Professor Anderson added.

Also siding Anderson’s stand on the issue, Cyril O’Regan, a professor of Theology, stressed that the theology requirement is crucial, saying that “It provides a link with the Church because theology is about a living faith grounded in the past and oriented towards the future.”

Prof. O’Regan however added that the University Heads should  have “stemmed the tide of considerable disquiet” by making it clear that Theology and Philosophy are sacrosanct due to their centrality to the university’s Catholic mission.

“Whatever the level of administration’s enthusiasm for reform, it would have been sensible to recognize that not everything in the current Core is fungible,” O’Regan said.

On the other hand, Professor Mark Roche of German language, literature and philosophy, who appears to be a forerunner in the support of a change to the University’s curriculum questioned whether theology and philosophy were the only “carriers of vision” for Notre Dame.

In a campus student newspaper publication, Irish Rover, Prof. Roche, who chairs a group that discusses Catholic mission, argued that the university’s theology requirement could be revamped and upgraded by having other disciplines teach courses that would count toward it.

“I’m doubtful that only theology and philosophy could succeed in helping students reach these learning outcomes. I’d like to see us draw on faculty in other fields to enhance integration. A primary task of theology, after all, is to integrate advances in the individual disciplines, and to encourage those disciplines to ask deeper, even ultimate questions,” Roche said after listing out the learning goals for the University’s core curriculum.

Further buttressing his view, Prof. Roche stressed that theology rightly carries a special status at Notre Dame, but added that it is more appropriate to discuss learning goals for the university rather than simply begin with the status quo.

“Theology and philosophy were both traditionally oriented toward integration, the unity of knowledge across disciplines. However, both have become, in research and teaching, modestly specialized,” Roche said. “How do we still preserve the unity of truth across disciplines? It’s a challenge for any Catholic university.”

Roche concluded that the campus is in the middle of discussions and won’t be making any decisions in the nearest future.

John T. McGreevy, dean of Notre Dame’s College of Arts and Letters, who is chairing the core-curriculum review committee, said in an interview that theology is not being singled out as the committee considers its recommendations, likely to be made next fall.

“How do we instantiate the Catholic identity in the core curriculum? One mode is two Theology and two Philosophy, but there are other modes, too,” McGreevy said. “Maybe we need more theology and philosophy. We care very deeply about the Catholic identity. Maybe we need more theology, maybe we need less, who’s to say how it turns out?” McGreevy concluded.


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