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Whither Notre Dame

March 24, 2009

I remember my dad saying forty years ago that “Notre Dame is the alma mater of every Catholic who never went to college.” He was right.

Forty years ago, most Catholics, like most Americans, had not been to college, though there was a growing sense that college was a good thing to do and thus a good thing to support. More importantly, forty years ago, Notre Dame’s Catholicism was still recognizable by Catholics in the pews of America, so when Catholic parents dreamed of college for a son (and later, for a daughter), they dreamed of Notre Dame.

But all that’s changed now.

Millions of American Catholics have gone to hundreds of colleges and universities, meaning that they have their own alma maters, thank you very much. More importantly, the kind of Catholicism that Notre Dame has been fostering since my dad’s day has been less and less something a pew Catholic would even recognize, let alone support.

For as long as my (now middle-aged) generation of Catholics can remember, Notre Dame, as an institution, has been awol from the culture wars, and often caught flirting, even cavorting, with the enemy. We see in Fr. Jenkins’ homage to Obama not the sudden betrayal of Notre Dame’s Catholic legacy, but the consummation of an on-going repudiation that has been underway there since the late 1960s.

I say “as an institution” because there have always been some fine Catholic faculty members at Notre Dame, though most of them have retired or are about to. But then, I could say the same thing about my alma mater, Mizzou; it, too, had some fine Catholics on the faculty. What’s so special about Notre Dame anymore?

In short, nothing. It’s an undisciplined child that has run through the inheritance (moral and perhaps even financial) that was bequeathed to it by my parents’ and grandparents’ generation (most of whom could never go to Notre Dame), and has made almost no new friends among their children and grandchildren (most of whom went somewhere else). Well, at least, it’s made no new friends among those who care for Notre Dame’s once-robust Catholic identity.

When Notre Dame eventually goes the way that so many other Catholic institutions of higher education first in Europe, now in America, have gone, as I think it will, it will hardly be missed by those who remain committed to making the Faith matter in public life. Notre Dame will hardly be missed by my generation, let alone by my children’s, when it is gone, because it has hardly been noticed while it was around.


See also: Notre Dame’s Shame: do we care enough to click? and be sure to visit the Cdl. Newman Society’s protest petition page.

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