Why Notre Dame’s curriculum review raises far-reaching Catholic identity questions

As the University of Notre Dame conducts its 10-year review of curriculum standards, a proposal to reconsider requiring students to take theology and philosophy courses is raising concerns that such a change could endanger the institution’s Catholic identity.

Many Catholics view the South Bend, Ind. school as the central intellectual institution for American Catholicism — it is widely considered one of the nation’s elite universities — and Notre Dame’s ultimate decision could have ripple effects for the nation’s Catholic schools. One of the many questions is whether required courses exploring Catholicism must come out of the theology or philosophy departments. Notre Dame students are now required to take two theology courses and two philosophy courses in order to graduate.

“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 Gary Anderson, a theology professor, who is opposed to a change. “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.”

Some professors worry that requiring students to take a class from the Catholic intellectual tradition instead of from the theology department — such as a course on Catholic painters in the Renaissance period or a course on Dante in literature — could push them away from the theology and philosophy that are core to the university’s curriculum. There were 8,595 undergraduate students at Notre Dame in Fall 2013, according to the university, and of the freshmen in 2014 — members of the Class of 2018 — 82 percent are Catholic.

Comments at a public university forum last week sounded alarm bells for some alumni, setting off responses with the hashtag #loveTHEOnotredame.

Mark Roche, a professor of German language, literature and philosophy, who chairs a group that discusses Catholic mission, questioned whether theology and philosophy were the only “carriers of vision” for Notre Dame.

According to a campus student newspaper — Irish Rover, which describes itself as being devoted to preserving the Catholic identity of Notre Dame — Roche argued that the university’s theology requirement could be developed and improved by having other disciplines teach courses that would count toward it.

After listing learning goals for the core curriculum, Roche said: “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.”

In an interview, Roche said theology rightly carries a special status at Notre Dame, but he said it’s appropriate to discuss learning goals for the university and not 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 said the campus is in the middle of discussions and won’t make decisions anytime soon.

“It may be dramatic, it may be an affirmation, it may be something in between,” he said. “The idea is to explore how the Catholic mission can be enhanced not by thinking about departments alone but by focusing instead on overarching learning goals.”​

In his address at the same campus gathering, Cyril O’Regan, a theology professor, argued that the theology requirement is crucial: “It provides a link with the Church because theology is about a living faith grounded in the past and oriented towards the future.”

O’Regan suggested that the administration could have “stemmed the tide of considerable disquiet” by stating theology and philosophy would not be touched 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, according to a copy of the speech he provided to The Washington Post. “What is wrong with our current administration, addicted to prestige, embarrassed by its Catholic present and past, is not that it aims too high, it is rather that it aims far too low.”

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.

“Really, we’re just batting around ideas, which is what you should do with a core curriculum review,” he said.

McGreevy said the committee is asking many questions. Who should teach core classes? Should graduate students teach so many courses? Should the college accept so much Advanced Placement credit? Questions about Catholic identity have generated the most discussion.

“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?”

In 2005, the university provided a rationale for why it teaches “the science of theology.” “No Catholic university can give an account of itself as an intellectual endeavor apart from Theology,” the academic council wrote at the time. “The core requirements in theology therefore lie at the heart of the education that Notre Dame strives to give to each of its undergraduate students.”

Franciscan University of Steubenville recently changed its core curriculum, which used to require students to take two theology courses and one philosophy course. Now, students at the Catholic university in Ohio must take three theology courses and three philosophy courses, said Jonathan Sanford, associate vice president for academic affairs.

“We’re trying to cultivate independent thinkers who are rooted in the Catholic tradition,” Sanford said. “We believe philosophy plays a fundamental role in helping students understand themselves in a complex world. Theology offers a structure for understanding themselves and the world in the context of the Catholic faith. We’re convinced that if students are as well prepared for the most significant questions in life, other things will fall from that.”

In recent years, some have raised questions about cultural shifts taking place within Notre Dame. Most notably, when the university awarded President Obama an honorary degree in 2009, many U.S. bishops expressed disapproval. Because Obama supports legalized abortion, some accused Notre Dame of essentially endorsing his views, which violate church teaching.

After same-sex marriage became legal in Indiana in October 2014, the university announced that it would offer benefits to all legally married spouses of employees. Officials said it would follow state law while still supporting traditional church teaching that marriage is between a man and a woman. Last year, the school made efforts to signal support for its LGBT student athletes, and it recognized an official gay-straight alliance, PrismND, in 2013.