Holding Back the Secularist Tide that Threatens to Overtake Our Lady’s University
by Guest Author, Daniel J. Kelly, Esq.
Academia is certainly a major front in contemporary culture wars. Academics who dare trespass the politically correct positions espoused by the mainstream masses of tenured types–those who know more and more about less and less–are routinely shouted down and run out of the tribe. It is therefore a small but genuine wonder that a voice as loudly countercultural as Father Wilson Miscamble’s has endured in the halls of ivy for more than a quarter century, especially the most recent quarter century.
The University of Notre Dame is not yet as far gone as its Catholic peers, and this is due in large part to Father Miscamble and other brave folk who have toiled long in the trenches as Notre Dame. Miscamble’s new book, For Notre Dame: Battling for the Heart & Soul of a Catholic University, chronicles Miscamble’s efforts to keep his finger in the dyke holding back the secularist tide that threatens to overtake Our Lady’s university. For Notre Dame is a collection of lectures, letters, essays, and articles that Miscamble has written addressing specific issues at Notre Dame that go to the heart of its identity as a Catholic institution. The book is an excellent resource, as it captures Miscamble’s contemporaneous arguments in the myriad skirmishes at Notre Dame for the last twenty years. As a historian, Miscamble certainly knows the value of such a work, and this one chronicles his various vantages as professor, department chair, and rector of Notre Dame’s Moreau Seminary.
Many of Notre Dame’s battles have been invisible to outsiders. The most well-known incident was Notre Dame’s hosting of President Obama as its 2009 commencement speaker and bestowing of an honorary degree on him. Either act by itself was an affront to Notre Dame’s Catholic character, but the combination was a slap in the face to those who thought that Notre Dame’s administration had better sense, including more than eighty U.S. bishops who voiced loud opposition to these decisions. President Obama’s visit was a critical event not because Notre Dame chose to honor a person openly hostile to the Catholic faith–it has done that plenty of times before–but because of the magnitude of the outcry that surrounded the event, especially the simultaneous protest held by faithful members of the Class of 2009, faculty, administrators, alumni, and friends on Notre Dame’s South Quad. The Obama episode is but one controversy of many. Other incidents include Notre Dame’s annual hosting of a performance of The Vagina Monologues, sponsorship of an annual gay and lesbian film festival on campus, and the appointment of an open abortion supporter as a university trustee. Miscamble treats many of these issues but does not dwell on them, as these are but skirmishes in the larger battle for Notre Dame’s soul, and Miscamble’s focus is clearly on the larger work.
By volume, Miscamble dwells most on the critical issue of faculty hiring and composition. If Notre Dame is to be a truly Catholic university, it’s heart and soul must be predominantly Catholic, and the faculty is the heart of any academic institution. As Miscamble points out repeatedly, this is not a matter of mere numbers. It is a matter of having faculty members, regardless of personal belief, who support the mission of a Catholic university in its truest sense, as a universal academic institution capable of engaging and educating the predominant culture. While Miscamble treats the subject in several expositions, his point is beautifully supported with the inclusion of tributes to four exemplars from Notre Dame’s own faculty ranks: Ralph McInerny, Vincent De Santis, Fr. Marvin O’Connell, and David Solomon.
The elements of history, controversy, and faculty culminate nicely in Miscamble’s 2003 address at the University of Portland on “John Zahm’s Challenge to the Modern Catholic University.” Zahm was a Holy Cross priest, academic, and Holy Cross provincial in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He had an expansive view of Catholic education for his time, and was on the losing end of visionary battles with Notre Dame’s then-president, Fr. Andrew Morrissey. Zahm envisioned an aggressive mission for Notre Dame as “one of the first educational institutions in the land” that would, with other Holy Cross institutions, “engage the culture and transform it.” Zahm’s vision lost to Morrissey’s more reserved approach, preferred in light of anti-Catholic sentiments that prevailed in America at the time. Miscamble goes on to demonstrate that by the time Vatican II fostered a new breed of Catholic academics set on engaging the culture, the culture had long since passed them up as irrelevant. Though not at all suggested by Miscamble, it is fair for readers to wonder whether historians looking back in another hundred years on the present time will have a similar story to tell of another pair of Holy Cross priests named Miscamble and Jenkins.
Fortunately for Notre Dame, there are remnants in each of its key constituencies–faculty, alumni, students, and amici–who continue to fight for the expansive vision of Notre Dame as a Catholic university true to its faith and engaging the culture. (Among these is the Sycamore Trust, a group of alumni organized to protect Notre Dame’s Catholic identity, to whom Miscamble’s book is dedicated in part–an honor shared with Bishop John D’Arcy, of happy memory.) Alas, there appear to be few in the more powerful constituencies of university trustees and administrators who share this vision. In the face of this sometimes discouraging reality, Miscamble closes with a charge: “The alumni matter, and their love for their alma mater must be reflected in their continued engagement with the university: It cannot be simply an episodic engagement…it must be constant and informed.”
Daniel J. Kelly, Esq. is a 1994 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. He currently serves as patent counsel at UnitedHealth Group. He serves on the Board of Chesterton Academy and on the Social Concerns Committee for the Minnesota Catholic Conference. He and his wife, Jill, are the proud parents of two children and are expecting their third.
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